The origin of…Red

“Red is the ultimate cure for sadness.” Bill Blass


Red has had various important meanings and functions during history.
First of all it was a sign of status and wealth. Clothing of ordinary people was dyed with the roots of the rubia tinctorum, but this color faded easily when washed or in the sun. The aristocrats and other people who could afford it wore clothing dyed with kermes or carmine. Carmine was made from the carminic acid in small female scale insects that could be found on the leaves of oak trees around the Mediterranean and in Eastern Europe. It was a long and complicated process to get the bright scarlet dye from the insects, which made it expensive. People who were even wealthier could afford to buy clothes dyed with Polish Cochineal, or Blood of Saint John, (Kermes vermilio), made from the Margodes polonicus, a related insect. Its color was more vivid than ordinary kermes. On top of that there was Kermes of Armenia, made from the Porphyophora hameli, an insect that lived on the roots and stems of certain herbs.
But there was an ever better color red. The macdaddy of the reds was Venetian red, a dye made by Venetian merchants who added arsenic to brighten the color as their secret ingredient.
The strong position the Venetians held in the dying industry started to crumble down when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec empire in the early 16th century and discovered a new kind of red. The Aztecs used the cochineal, a parasitic scale insect that lived on cactus plants, to dye their clothes. When dried and crushed it produced a very beautiful color red. The cochineal was related to the Kermes in Europe, but it could be harvested several times a year and it was ten times stronger than the Kermes of Poland.The first shipment was sent to Spain in 1523 and soon more shipments arrived in Europe.
Of course, the Venetians were not too happy about this development and they banned the cochineal, but there was no stopping the superior quality of the cochineal dye. By the beginning of the 17th century cardinals, bankers, courtisans and aristocrats all preferred this type of red.
In China, red was the color worn by the royal guards of honor and it was the color of the carriages of the imperial family. When traveling they were accompanied by servants and accompanying officials carrying red and purple umbrellas.  During the Zhou, Han, Jin, Song and Ming Dynasties, red was considered a noble color, and it was used in all court ceremonies, like coronations, weddings and sacrificial offerings.
The Chinese used different plants to make red dyes, like the flowers of carthamus tinctorius, the thorns and stems of a plant called Kao-liang, and the wood of the sappanwood tree.

Furthermore, red has had a role in military and political life. Soldiers in Ancient Rome wore red tunics.
In China, red was the color of one of the ranks during the Song Dynasty (906–1279). Officials of the top three ranks wore purple clothes; those of the fourth and fifth wore bright red; those of the sixth and seventh wore green; and the eighth and ninth wore blue.
In 1645 the British Army adopted a red uniform that lasted until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Ordinary soldiers wore red coats dyed with madder, while officers wore scarlet coats dyed with the more expensive cochineal. This is why British soldiers were also known as red coats.
During the French Revolution in the 18th century red became a symbol of liberty and in the mid-19th century it became the color of socialism, and later on communism.

Red also has a religious meaning. In the Roman Catholic Church red symbolizes the blood of Christ and the Christian martyrs, and until this day, the pope and cardinals wear red robes.
In Buddhism, red is one of the five colors that have originated from the Buddha when he reached nirvana (enlightenment). It is mostly associated with the benefits of the practice of Buddhism: achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity.

There are numerous other associations with the color red, but there are just too many to sum up here. The last ones that I will give you are: passion and love, and of course Santa Claus!

1. having the color of blood
2. reddish brown or reddish orange in color (source: Merriam Webster).

The English word red comes from Old English read, red, from Proto-Germanic *rauthaz, red, from Latin rufus, red (mostly of hair)/ruddy, from Proto Indo European root *reudh-, red, ruddy.
Dutch rood, Spanish rojo and Italian rosso all have the same origins.

Red in other languages:
Dutch: rood
Spanish: rojo
Italian: rosso


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