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A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire Paperback

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (April 25, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060522763
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060522766
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #36,460 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Elusive, expensive and invested with powerful symbolism, red cloth became the prize possession of the wealthy and well-born," Greenfield writes in her intricate, fully researched and stylishly written history of Europe's centuries-long clamor for cochineal, a dye capable of producing the "brightest, strongest red the Old World had ever seen." Discovered by Spanish conquistadors in Mexico in 1519, cochineal became one of Spain's top colonial commodities. Striving to maintain a trade monopoly, Spain fiercely guarded the secrets of cochineal cultivation in Mexico and only after centuries of speculation (was the red powder derived from plant or animal?) did 18th-century microscopes bring the mystery to light. Greenfield recounts the wild, clandestine attempts by adventurer naturalists to cultivate both the cochineal insect and its host plant, nopal, beyond their native Mexico, acts of folly driven by the desire for scientific fame and commercial profit. Greenfield's narrative culminates in the 19th-century discovery of synthetic dyes that, for a period, eclipsed cochineal. However, as she explains, owing to its safety, cochineal is back to stay as a cosmetics and food dye. Greenfield's absorbing account encompasses the history of European dyers' guilds, the use of pigments by artists such as Rembrandt and Turner, and the changing associations of the color red, from the luxurious robes of kings and cardinals to its latter-day incarnation as the garb of the "scarlet woman." 8 pages of color illus. not seen by PW.Agent, Tina Bennett.(May 2)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Pirates! Kings! Beautiful ladies! Daring spies! Elements essential for a page-turning action/adventure thriller, yes, but who would think they'd turn up in a scholarly examination of a little-known substance called cochineal? It is responsible for producing that elusive shade of red deemed vital for dyeing royalty's robes, and the quest for this coveted resource involved some of history's most infamous episodes and ignoble scoundrels. Native to Mexico, the scale insect cochineal was first harvested as a dyestuff by the ancient Aztecs, and once its properties were discovered by European conquistadors, it became the quarry in an international race to obtain a monopoly on its production. As first Spain, and then England, France, and Holland entered the race to procure this precious commodity, nothing less than the way in which the New World was conquered and the Old World prospered was at stake. The granddaughter and great-granddaughter of dyers, Greenfield combines the investigative prowess of a detective with the intellectual reasoning of an academician to create an eminently entertaining and educational read. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Amy Butler Greenfield was a history grad student when she gave into temptation and became a writer. Since then she's become an award-winning author.

Amy grew up in the Adirondack Mountains and later studied history at Williams College, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Oxford. She now lives with her family in England, where she writes, plots mischief, and bakes double-dark-chocolate cake.

You can find her at www.amybutlergreenfield.com.

Customer Reviews

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An excellent read for anyone with an interest in history, fashion, textiles, or science.
Melinda Burnett
Amy Butler Greenfield writes well, not just about cochineal and its uses, but about the economics and politics behind the search for the perfect red.
John D. Cofield
I agree with the critics who claim this book . . . "a delightful, rollicking history, a fun read and well supported by research".
R. Thomas

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

65 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Bart E. Kahr on June 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In recent years, there have been published a number of excellent books about the history of color, including monographs focusing on natural and coal tar dyes. Amy Butler Greenfield's book stands at the very top of this list. Her focus, cochineal, is an extraordinary red dyestuff so aggressively coveted that in directed international trade and politics for centuries. The story that Butler Greenfield tells rests on an impressive mountain of scholarship that is hidden from the reader by wavy prose that carry us effortlessly between the colonial European powers and the locales in the West Indies and the Spanish Main where the cochineal beetle was cultivated. Even better however are the extensive notes and bibliography that are indeed available at the end of the book, aspects of popular history all too often omitted by publishers. HarperCollins should be congratulated for fully embracing the sources. Butler Greenfield is an excellent historian, an inspired writer, a natural story teller, and not a bad chemist either. A Perfect Red will be enjoyed by those who merely enjoy rip-roaring tales of conquest and piracy, as well as by those with a deeper interest in science and cultural history. It strikes a perfect balance between great fun and great learning. It has my highest recommendation.
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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Red is just a color; if we want a red shirt, red paint, or red curtains, we just go out and buy them, as we would articles of any other color. It may be that red is a special color, with associations of blood or anger or desire, but as a mere pigment, it isn't anything unusual. That was not the case in past centuries. In fact, red bankrolled the Spanish empire and prompted the growth of science at the expense of belief in an all-explaining Bible. It is surprising that a history can be written about a color, but in _A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire_ (HarperCollins), Amy Butler Greenfield has opened up an extraordinary story, and one that still touches us today. It is the history of our interaction with Dactylopius coccus, an insect that parasitizes a particular cactus in tropical America, an insect better known as cochineal. It turns out to be one of the most important insects in history.

There were reds before the New World was discovered. Dyers and artists were able to make plants and minerals yield russets and orange-reds fairly easily, but real red cloth was hard to manufacture. A more vivid red could be made from insects, like oak-kermes, that could be killed with vinegar and steam, and packed up to sell to dyers the world over. The dyers didn't know it, but these insects contain what is now known as carminic acid, a powerful red dye. It is this dye that the cochineal insect has, too, but it is far more powerful and less fastened to troublesome lipids. The conquistadors saw the colors that were produced in cloth in the new world, and brought back the dye to Spain starting in 1519. By 1580, kermes reds were out and cochineal reds were in. Spain profited from many New World finds, but the new dye was a chief one.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By S. Pearson on July 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Amy B. Greenfield spoke at my local bookstore as this book was debuting, and boy is she, and her book, fabulous. She brought a jar of dried cochineal beetles to show everyone, as well as a half-dozen silk scarves she herself had dyed with cochineal. The four years of research she invested in this bewitching story are evident not only in the accuracy and thoroughness of her book, but in the riveting writing itself. She is clearly enamored of the subject, and seduces the reader into a shared state of fascination. _Red_ is without question the loveliest nonfiction I've read in years.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Robert Muirhead on September 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Red is such a common colour that we take it for granted. Red adorns the merchandise of Manchester United, Ferrari and a host of lesser brands - even our underwear. It also epitomised one of the dominant political ideologies of the 20th century - the "Reds", aka Communists.

It is difficult to accept that until relatively recently red was associated with wealth and power. Cost, and sometimes regulations, placed red clothing beyond the reach of most people.

In the 18th century the best red dye (cochineal) was a valuable and mysterious commodity - and a major import from the Spanish New World to Europe. Was cochineal a seed or an animal? The argument was finally settled as a result of a wager. Early microscopists such as Leeuwenhoek got involved on the side and the result was some of Leeuwenhoek's most exquisite drawings. These are reproduced in the book.

Another compelling story, with resonances in our own day, concerns the destruction of the cochineal industry by cheaper synthetic dyes in the 19th century. In 1870, Guatemala produced over 1.5 million pounds of cochineal a year, almost exclusively by small farmers using very labour intensive methods.

By 1890, Guatemalian farmers had virtualy ceased production. The same was true for the other major producers in Mexico and the Canary Islands. Such massive changes in an important industry led to major social and economic disruption. Modern trade practices often have similar effects in many poorer countries.

However, the story of cochineal does not end there, and has a slightly happier ending in the 20th century. But you will have to read the book to find out how.

I must admit to an addiction to this genre of books on the history of ordinary things.
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