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

3.86 of 5 stars 3.86  ·  rating details  ·  1,397 ratings  ·  148 reviews
A Perfect Red recounts the colorful history of cochineal, a legendary red dye that was once one of the world's most precious commodities. Treasured by the ancient Mexicans, cochineal was sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519. Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest, strong...more
Hardcover, 338 pages
Published April 26th 2005 by Harper (first published 2005)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Will Byrnes
Cochineal was the source of rich red color for centuries. What is it? A question for which Europe had no true answer for hundreds of years. This book tells the tale of the color red, how the color was viewed in society in various periods of time. (An indicator of class distinction, or of harlotry, for example) It is primarily a tale of adventure in which many attempt to locate the true source of this very valuable product, then try to steal it. Not only adventurers but scientists applied their s...more
Since I seem to be on a roll talking about books that have to do with knitting, I'll add this one. Cochineal, who knew? Years out from reading the book, I still get pleasure thinking about it when I notice it on the bookshelf. Cochineal is a dyestuff derived from parasitic colonies of scale insects that are native to Mexican cacti. For centuries it was a commodity that drove empire and espionage worldwide, as the subtitle says. Before cochineal was available from the Spanish colonies, there was...more
This book reminds me of an optical illusion that looks like one thing when you look at it one way, but looks like something totally different when viewed another way – think of the ubiquitous Escher posters... Viewed from one perspective, A Perfect Red is a quirky and witty, albeit highly selective, history of Western Civilization from 1500 to the present, with a special emphasis on the Spanish Empire. From another perspective, it is a 261-page history of the trade in a particular commodity that...more
Bev Hankins
I'm afraid that A Perfect Red: Empire Espionage, & the Quest for the Color of Desire didn't do a whole lot for me. And I don't think it's Amy Butler Greensfield's fault. You see, I was kind of confused when I picked this up at my local library's used bookstore in July 2011. The kindly volunteers who manage the store had shelved it on the hardback fiction shelf and when I read the synopsis I thought that this must fictional history. I've read those before--heavy on the history, but still a fi...more
Did you know that “red” is the oldest color term in all languages (save black and white)? No? You aren’t an artist, say? Although creative genes are welcome, this book envelops catchy themes such as pirates, secrecy, espionage, social standing of colors and dyestuffs, etc; and isn’t merely for the artistic audience. A Perfect Red demonstrates the soap opera values of history and combines a valuable sweeping resource of art, history, and science.

Having enjoyed and learned more in the four-page pr...more
Dec 21, 2009 Trena rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Nerdy Fashionistas
This book, a history of cochineal dye, was a well-told, fascinating story. As with any commodity history, the author gets a little too convinced of the importance of her pet commodity (see also, Salt), but it does not diminish the scale of the story.

As with Salt, the book focuses a lot on Europe, a little on the Americas, and none on Africa. It is more justifiable, however, as cochineal is a Central American product that was exported pretty much exclusively to Europe. It would have been interes...more
For obvious reasons, I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, I am easily bored by political histories and the bulk of this book is just that. It’s really a history of the cultivation and use of the cochineal bug for red dyes, which is a story very similar to the cultivation and use of cacao, quinine, coca, sugar, coffee, bananas, and many other New World products that Europeans pillaged from the Americas, and that I have already read about.

For me, the book didn’t get interesting until...more
Extremely interesting chronicle of what was once a highly lucrative commodity that nobody really remembers today: a bug that produces a red dye that, at the time, couldn't be beat.

We all know Spain mined the "new world" for its gold and silver but cochineal was an empire money maker for hundreds of years, mainly because it kept the insect a secret, exporting only the dye product to those willing to pay handsomely for it but never revealing its origin. Even after it was proved to be an insect ste...more
I often enjoy histories of small or offbeat subjects. It can be a great way to learn obscure things and to think about "bigger" historical events in a different way. Amy Greenfield's history of cochineal - "Europe's premier red dyestuff" - is a terrific example of this genre. A Perfect Red weaves together the cultural history of the color red, particularly in textiles, has had in the West with the natural history of the insects and plants required to create cochineal and the political history of...more
It’s amazing how interesting history can be in the hands of a talented author. Butler Greenfield weaves a fascinating tale of international espionage and fashion in this well crafted tome that is anything but dry. I especially love the tantalizing lead ends that join one chapter to the next. The amount of research this book must have taken is an impressive feat, but the talent to craft it into something so accessible, so enjoyable…man, I wish I could write like this.
Nov 20, 2007 Garen rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: any one who wants to sink into another time and place
What do we take for granted? So many things. Here's a book that tells us how the world was tipped sideways with the acquisition of just one of those things: an abundant and stable source of the color red. Who knew?
Michael Heneghan
Living in Mexico, your eyes start to wander towards books that are related to where you live. That's how this book made its way to me, through our school librarian. This nonfiction work is the story of a small insect, cochineal, that lives on the nopal cactuses here in Mexico, especially in the south near Oaxaca. These insects, when tended carefully, became the centerpiece of a global red dye industry that lasted well into the 20th century. Dyes, and especially red dyes, have always been associa...more
Fascinating! A beautifully portrayed, heartfeltly written, and impressively researched story about how the color red was sought after, and how the color red (along with competing colors) has and continues to affect past and present cultures. From botanists to spies, from industrialists to inventors, from politics to revolutions--this is a true action book, made all the more amazing because its true from history--a MUST READ for anyone who has ever dabbled in art, fashion, or fallen in love with...more
Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red tells a two-fold story of human interactions with the color red. The novel traces the paths of development of red dye technology from its origins in ochre, used by Cro-Magnon, to madder to cochineal to modern synthetic dyes. The author specifically goes into great detail about the history of cochineal, a small insect originally from Mexico. The Spanish conquistadores found the natives cultivating it in New Spain. This insect yielded a brilliant red dye when...more
This book has everything: science, history, politics, botany, biology, couture, and espionage. Greenfield puts the history of the cochineal into perspective, from millennia of cultivation by the Tlaxcalans to the hunger for intense colors in dyes across Europe and Asia. Apparently, Europeans didn't have a satisfactory red dye until the Cortez sent some cochineal back after his conquest of Mexico. The Spanish maintained their monopoly of the dye for a long time and even though they freely admitte...more
Brian Kelley
Both exhaus­tive and exhaust­ing, I strug­gled through A Per­fect Red by Amy But­ler Greenfield. Per­haps this is more a reflec­tion on me than the writer as the book has gar­nered many plau­dits from top reviewers. Green­field obvi­ous­ly did her homework--there is lit­tle wast­ed space--as she ele­vates a lowly insect to instant celebrity.

I did learn quite a bit, so the book did not dis­ap­point in that regard. Yet the full title was so invit­ing that I expect­ed some­thing sex­i­er in style...more
This was a fasctinating book - so much information that I knew the top layer of, but had no idea all the history that lurked beneath! I love reading about how some tiny event, object or person can shift the entire world history ... and this book is full of those lovely gems. A more in-depth look at the entire timeline would take many many books, as this covers everything from ancient red dyes through Cortez and Spanish rule of the Americas, and on into 20th century chemical dye creations. So whi...more
Steve Bennett

A Perfect Red is a very nice book. I learned way more about the cochineal (hope I spelled it correctly--still do not know how to pronounce the word)than I ever thought I would know in this life. It is the insect that is responsible for the best red dye used for centuries. A delightful book with byway discussions of Spanish imperialism (the cochineal is native to Mexico and Spain used all its imperial powers to profit from the cochineal trade ), early advancements in microscopes (for a long time...more
I originally saw this book for sale at the Sewing Expo, and picked it up on my Kindle a few weeks later. It's a fascinating nonfiction read about the color red and the quest for red dye throughout the last thousand years or so. The truest reds came from cochineal, a small insect indigenous to Mexico, and entire trade router, companies, fortunes, and empires turned on the possession and use of cochineal. The facts about the cochineal industry are fascinating, from the labor-intensive nopalries wh...more
In medieval Europe, red textiles were available only to royalty because there was no reliable source of red dye. All of this changed when the Spanish Conquistadores discovered cochineal, a natural dye producing an intense shade of crimson, being sold in the Aztec marketplaces in Mexico. This discovery set off a global competition – complete with spies and pirates - to obtain the valuable material. Weaving together fascinating strands of social, political and economic history, Green...more
Apr 28, 2011 Ellen rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Ellen by: Dr. Gaskins
An amazing account of the origin of the highly sought after red dye. I admit I had to read this for a class, but this book wasn't specifically assigned to me; I chose to read this for a book report because I saw the word "red" in it, and I didn't care what it was about as long it was about red (which is my favorite color if I didn't make it obvious). Anyway, I don't regret my decision one bit. My only regret is not buying a copy of the book (I borrowed the book from my university library) becaus...more
Mary Catelli
This is a book about dyeing, and red, and cochineal.

After some discussion about the importance of red fabric in Western civilization, and the dyes available in Europe, it describes the cochineal dye, native to Mexico, and how it slowly grew to be accepted in Europe -- slowly partly because conquistadors found it needed to be grown with care and therefore was ill-suited to mass production with slave labor, partly because the European dyers were reluctant and suspicious. Still, given it was far su...more
I picked up this book while in the town of Independencia, Bolivia, volunteering and learning to do some simple weaving at a tiny community weaving initiative, spearheaded by a former Peace Corps volunteer ( They are working to revive and pass down their complex traditional weaving heritage, and at the same time reclaim some of the traditional knowledge they've lost. One of the lost pieces is dying fiber (mostly llama and sheep wool) from natural dyes. For their reds, pinks, and...more
Sharon Griffitts
This was a most interesting book about the color red but also about a bit of history I was totally unaware of. Red is seen today as a color of power, war, anger, energy but was not always so readily available as today.
It was once worn only by nobility and the richest of the rich due to the high cost, making sense of its association with power. Most of the book centers on early years of Spanish rule in the Americas, specifically in Mexico where the most brilliant reds were created from little bu...more
Ever wonder about the history of something so mundane as a color? There's so much history in this book, mixed with a little humor. The story is so well-told that you can envision the depth and richness of this mysterious and culture-changing pigment. Completely fascinating.
I adored this rich history of the color red and the explanation of the desires and mysteries surrounding all shades of crimson.
Greenfield does for the hue,what Davis did for the book ,Strapless and the intense research about Sargeant and his notorious poser.

From the beginning of man,red has been a remarkable tease. Trying to capture the color on fabric or glass has been something wars and rivalries have been fought fiercely over. Every deeply researched page is filled with remarkable exploration...more
Max Renn
Another pleasantly readable pop history book. This time centering around the fascinating rise and fall of cochineal, a mexican dye composed of the dried crushed parasites of nopal cacti.

Suffering a bit from eurocentrism, Greenfield sets the stage with a brief overview of red's history within the continental dye trade before yielding the bulk of her book to the grand adventure of her central subject. But the story really is a rollicking one and delivers on the promise of the books empire and espi...more
Jean Carlton
I struggled a bit with so many statistics and details - but it sure gave me a complete picture of the history of the Cochineal red dye and a world view of colonization, espionage, pirating and more. I had no idea the complexity of politics, science, and competition for marketing not being a history buff.
Got bogged down and I was tempted to stop over half way through but kept going and found the concepts of color and it's meaning and importance through the ages very interesting. I didn't know co...more
This one took me a bit to get into, but once I was a quarter into the book, I was hooked. I found it to be both entertaining and educational (about dyes and the search for the perfect color of red).
Greenfield is an academic, but she has a flair for the dramatic, and it was a real pleasure to watch this story unfold. There was a lot of international intrigue, espionage and interesting characters surrounding the search for red dye in Imperial Age Europe.

She also seemed to strike a good balance between history, science, economics and language, it's an interdisciplinary book that I think would have a wide appeal, but I think would also be of interest (obviously) to fiber nerds like myself.

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Amy Butler Greenfield was a grad student in history when she gave into temptation and became a writer. Since then, she has 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, bakes double-dark-chocolate cake, and plots misch...more
More about Amy Butler Greenfield...
Chantress (Chantress, #1) Chantress Alchemy (Chantress, #2) Virginia Bound Chantress Fury (Chantress, #3)

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