The history of color is marked by death, intrigue and secrets. It has all the makings of a blockbuster movie today and is unquestionably fascinating. In upcoming blogs I will delve into that history. When I taught design at Collin College in Plano, Texas, my student’s favorite lectures were the stories behind color.

– Claes Oldenburg Swedish-born American Pop Sculptor, b. 1929

The powerful and dark color, carmine, was a red used for the robes of cardinals and kings. It was utilized as a medicine for Philip II of Spain, combined with vinegar to heal disorders of the heart, head and stomach. Celebrated artists have painted with it. The color is in women’s cosmetics today (lipstick, blush and some eye shadows) as well as in clothing and on walls. Red color additive 120 is used in cherry Coke.

In the sixteenth century, most people naturally assumed it was a red made from a plant or a nut but the color is actually made of blood from the female cochineal insect. The cochineal is a small white insect that feeds on the Prickly Pear cactus. 

The color was highly prized and its secret closely guarded by the Spaniards in the 1700s. Spain had a monopoly on the color and no one knew what it was made from. It was a commodity other countries were trying desperately to find. Thierry de Menoville became the spy to finally break Spain’s hold on the industry. Posing as a botanist physician, he was able to smuggle out branches of the prickly cactus covered with cochineal insects from Mexico and board a ship back to Haiti. If exposed, the penalty was death. His discovery granted the French access to the industry. Later synthetic dyes were discovered in 1870 and the color became widely available. 

You may think that’s the end of the use of real “bug blood” but it has once again become prized due to the discovery of commercial synthetics realized to be carcinogenic. Consider the parasitic cochineal insect the next time you drink a cherry coke or put on that red lipstick or blush. It’s definitely the stuff of a blockbuster movie.