A red dyestuff important in the 19ᵗʰ century.



COCHINEAL was taken in Europe at first for a seed, but was proved by the observations of Lewenhoeck to be an insect, being the female of that species of shield-louse, or coccus, discovered in Mexico, so long ago as 1518. It is brought to us from Mexico, where the animal lives upon the cactus opuntia or nopal. Two sorts of cochineal are gathered — the wild, from the woods, called by the Spanish name grana silvestra; and the cultivated, or the grana fina, termed also mesteque, from the name of a Mexican province. The first is smaller, and covered with a cottony down, which increases its bulk with a matter useless in dyeing; it yields, therefore, in equal weight, much less colour, and is of inferior price to that of the fine cochineal. But these disadvantages are compensated in some measure to the growers by its being reared more easily, and less expensively; partly by the effect of its down, which enables it better to resist rains and storms.

The wild cochineal, when it is bred upon the field nopal, loses in part the tenacity and quantity of its cotton, and acquires a size double of what it has on the wild opuntias. It may therefore be hoped, that it will be improved by persevering care in the rearing of it, when it will approach more and more to fine cochineal.

The fine cochineal, when well dried and well preserved, should have a gray colour, bordering on purple. The gray is owing to the powder, which naturally covers it, and of which a little adheres; as also to a waxy fat. The purple shade arises from the colour extracted by the water in which they were killed. It is wrinkled with parallel furrows across its back, which are intersected in the middle by a longitudinal one; hence, when viewed by a magnifier, or even a sharp naked eye, especially after being swollen by soaking for a little in water, it is easily distinguished from the factitious, smooth, glistening, black grains, of no value, called East India cochineal, with which it is often shamefully adulterated by certain London merchants. The genuine cochineal has the shape of an egg, bisected through its long axis, or of a tortoise, being rounded like a shield upon the back, flat upon the belly, and without wings.

These female insects are gathered off the leaves of the nopal plant, after it has ripened its fruit, a few only being left for brood, and are killed, either by a momentary immersion in boiling water, by drying upon heated plates, or in ovens: the last become of an ash-gray colour, constituting the silver cochineal, or jaspeada; the second are blackish, called negra, and are most esteemed, being probably driest; the first are reddish brown, and reckoned inferior to the other two. The dry cochineal being sifted, the dust, with the imperfect insects and fragments which pass through, are sold under the name of granillo.

Andrew Ure, M.D.
A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines...
London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1839.
Page 42.


Cochineal is an insect which lives upon different species of the Opuntia, and is imported in large quantities from South America, in the form of little grains of an irregular figure, of a deep reddish purple colour, and covered more or less with a whitish down. They are light, and easily rubbed to powder between the fingers. On one side they are roundish and wrinkled; the other is flat.

The attention of the East India Company was for many years directed to the production of this insect; but with little success. What has been brought from India has been very small, not very abundant in colouring matter, very inferior to any brought from New Spain, and used only in dying coarse goods. The use of lac dye has superseded it.

Cochineal is an article in general demand at Bombay, and occasionally at China : for the former market the large black grain is preferred, as free from the grey or silvery appearance as possible. ln purchasing this commodity, care should be taken that the dark colour has not been occasioned by art : this may be discovered by its smell, which is unpleasant, whereas genuine cochineal is quite free from smell.

Wiliam Milburn.
Revised by Thomas Thornton.
Oriental Commerce, or the East India Trader's Complete Guide; …
London: Printed for Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allen, 1825.
Page 287.

for further reading

Amy Butler Greenfield.
A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire.
Harper Perennial, 2006.

Carmella Padilla.
A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World.
Skira Rizzoli, September 2015.

Elena Phipps.
Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.

Luis C. Rodriguez and Hermann M. Niemeyer.
Cochineal production: a reviving precolumbian industry.
Athena Review, vol. 2, no. 4, pages 76-78(2001)
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