A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfieldh

Reviewed by Denise Beusen, Level I Candidate
Harper Collins Press, New York,2005***ISBN 0-06-052275-5***261 pages, plus annotations, bibliography, & index
Originally Published Summer 2006

I have an odd fragment of a memory from the time when I first seriously returned to stitching as an adult: being in a shop with a fellow guild member who is standing at the cash register, preparing to pay for a stack of skeins, all of different thread types but everyone one of them red. When I asked her what she was buying so much red thread for, she replied “it’s always hard to find a good red”. I thought of that exchange recently when I organized my threads by color, only to find that the most populous color in my palette was red. With this background, it’s hardly surprising that a book titled “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire” spoke to me as a must-read volume.

The author is an Oxford- trained historian who did her Master’s thesis work on chocolate, which inevitably led her to old texts written in and about the New World. There she encountered many references to red dyes, leading her to ponder whether there was another story to tell. Years later, she returned to the subject, and has indeed uncovered a magnificent, engaging story.

The book starts with a description of the state of textile making and dying in the 15th century, which the author describes as a , plus picture credits, index, and further readings growth industry that drove technological innovation in Europe – much the way we think of biotechnology today. Some issues that we regard as exclusively modern were relevant then, such as dyers of each city protecting their intellectual property (for example, specific techniques for using dye stuffs). In laying the background for the story, the author discusses the social significance of color, arising from its expense and consequently its availability only to the wealthy.

The text ties together many aspects of European culture, economy, and politics during the 16th through 19th centuries, using red dyes as the common, uniting theme. Each of these topics is discussed in appropriate depth, but not belabored. The result is a highly readable discourse. The story moves chronologically through Spain’s conquest of Mexico, the discovery of cochineal (an insect that lives as a parasite on the nopal cactus), the development of Spain’s monopoly on cochineal-based red dye, and the intrigue by other counties to discover the source of Spain’s red dye. It’s common knowledge that Spain extracted great wealth from the New World in the form of silver; what’s not widely appreciated is that the second largest export from the New World was cochineal.

The author is the winner of the 2006 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction Book, and the prize is well-deserved. The story is told from a historian’s point of view: it’s not historical fiction, so those who prefer history delivered from the perspective of characters may find the text tedious to read. The book is scholarly but at the same time offers an engrossing narrative, much in the style of David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, or Doris Kearns Goodwin. The extensive bibliography is what one would expect from an historian – many primary sources, including documents dating from the 16th century at the time that Spain entered the New World. If the book has a shortcoming, it is in a shortage of illustrations: there are just 8 pages, and they seem to be added almost as an afterthought, lacking clear references in the text. I found myself looking for more illustrations – even a simple map of Mexico would have been useful in sections of the text that discuss regions of the country important for cochineal production.

A Perfect Red would be a great addition to the library of anyone with an interest in both textiles and history and who enjoys a scholarly exposition of history made digestible for a larger audience.