They Created the Red Dye That Changed the World
Prior to the Spanish conquering the Aztecs, the European world had never been able to dye their fabrics a deep scarlet color. The Europeans up until the early 16th century used a plant extract that was known as madder red, but it made a color that was paler than the red the Aztecs were able to create. Therefore, as soon as the Spaniards saw the rich fabrics they were determined to know how to make it for themselves.
The secret ingredient to the rich scarlet of Aztec cloth was the use of the cochineal beetle. The beetle lives on the prickly pear cacti and one quarter of the bug’s body consists of carminic acid. It is that acid which creates the red dye. The beetles are small, which means creating the dye is incredibly time consuming. It took 70,000 of the beetles to make just one pound of dye.
Once the Spaniards knew the secret, they did everything they could to keep it from the rest of the world and they started exporting the dye immediately. It would then become a staple of the Spanish economy for the next 300 years. Due to the number of insects needed to create the dye, it was only used for the wealthiest people and the most high-quality fabrics.
Redcoat officers in the British army had their uniforms dyed with the cochineal beetle dye, but the regular enlisted men only had madder dyed uniforms. The rich red that Catholic cardinals became known for was due to the dye of the cochineal beetle. Even today, the dye is still used as a completely organic food dye.