A Dictionary of Arts: Cochineal.

A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines; containing A Clear Exposition of Their Principles and Practice

by Andrew Ure, M. D.;
F. R. S. M. G. S. Lond.: M. Acad. M. S. Philad.; S. PH. DOC. N. GERM. Ranow.; Mulh. Etc. Etc.

Illustrated with nearly fifteen hundred engravings on wood
Eleventh American, From The Last London Edition.
To which is appended, a Supplement of Recent Improvements to The Present Time.

New York: D Appleton & company, 200 Broadway. Philadelphia: George S. Appleton, 148 Chestnut St.


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 the 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 color, 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 color, 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 trough its long acid, 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 color, 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.

Cochineal keeps for a long time in a dry place. Hellot says that he has tried some 130 years old, which produced the same effect as new cochineal.

We are indebted to MM. Pelletier and Caventou for a chemical investigation of cochineal, in which its colouring matter was skilfully eliminated.

Purified sulphuric ether acquired by digestion with it a golden yellow color, amounting by Dr. John to one tenth of the weight of the insect. This infusion left, on evaporation, a fatty wax of the same color.

Cochineal, exhausted by ether, was treated with alcohol at 40° B. After 30 infusions in the digester of M. Chevreul, the cochineal continued to retain color, although the alcohol had ceased to have any effect on it. The first alcoholic liquors were of a red verging on yellow. On cooling, they let fall a granular matter. By spontaneous evaporation, this matter, of a fine red color, separated, assuming more of the crystalline appearance. These species of crystals dissolved entirely in water, which they tinged of a yellowish-red.

This matter has a very brilliant purple-red color; it adheres strongly to the sides of the vessels; it has a granular and somewhat crystalline aspect, very different, however, from those compound crystals alluded to above; it is not altered by the air, nor does it sensibly attract moisture. Exposed to the section of heat, it melts at about the fiftieth degree centigrade (122° Fahr.). At a higher temperature it swells up, and is decomposed with the production of carboretted hydrogen, much oil, and a small quantity of water, very slightly acidulous. No trace of ammonia was found in these products.

The colouring principle of cochineal is very soluble in water. By evaporation, the liquid assumes the appearance of sirup, but never yields crystals. It requires of this matter a portion almost imponderable to give a perceptible tinge of bright purplish red to a large body of water. Alcohol dissolves this colouring substance, but, as we have already stated, the more highly it is rectified the less of it does it dissolve. Sulphuric ether does not dissolve the colouring principle of cochineal; but weak acids do, possibly owing to their water of dilution. No acid precipitates in its pure state. This colouring principle, however, appears to be precipitable by all he acids, when it is accompanied by the animal matter of the cochineal.

The affinity of alumina for the colouring matter is very remarkable. When that earth, newly precipitated, is put into a watery solution of the colouring principle, this is immediately seized by alumina. The water becomes colorless, and a fine red lake is obtained, if we operate at the temperature of the atmosphere; but if the liquor has been hot, the colour passes to crimson, and the shade becomes more and more violet, according to the elevation of the temperature, and the continuance of the ebullition.

The salts of tin exercise upon the colouring matter of cochineal a remarkable action. The muriatic protoxide of tin forms a very abundant violet precipitate in the liquid. The muriatic protoxide of tin forms a very abundant violet precipitate in the liquid. This precipitate verges on crimson, if the salt contains an excess of acid. The muriatic deutoxide of tin produces no precipitate, but changes the colour to scarlet-red. If gelatinous alumina be now added, we obtain a fine red precipitate, which does not pass to crimson by boiling.

To this colouring principle the name carminium has been given, because it forms the basis of the pigment called carmine.

The process followed in Germany for making carmine, which consists in pouring a certain quantity of solution of alum into a decoction of cochineal, is the most simple of all, and affords an explanation of the formation of carmine, which is merely the carminin[-] and the animal matter precipitated by the excess of acid in the salt, which has taken down with it a small quantity of alumina; though it appears that alumina ought not to be regarded as essential to the formation of carmine. In fact, by another process, called by the nae of Madame Cenette of Amsterdam, the carmine is thrown down, by pouring into the decoction of cochineal a certain quantity of the binoxalate of potash. When carbonate of soda is added, then carminated lake also falls down. That carmine is a triple compound of animal matter, carminium, and an acid, appears from the circumstance that liquors which have afforded their carmine by the precipitation of the last portions of the animal matter. But whenever the whole animal matter is thrown down, the decoctions, although still much charged with the colouring principle, can afford no more carmine. Such decoctions may be usefully employed to make carminated lakes, saturating the acid with a slight excess of alkali, and adding gelatinous alumina. The precipitates obtained on adding acids to the alkaline decoctions of cochineal, are therefore true carmines, since they do not contain alumina; but the small quantity of alumina which is thrown down by alum in the manufacture of carmine, augments its bulk and weight. It gives, besides, a greater lustre to the color, even though diluting and weakening it a little.

The carmines found in the shops of Paris were analyzed, and yielded the same products. They are decomposed by the action of heat, with the diffusion at first of a very strong smell of burning animal matter, an then of sulphur. A white border remained, amounting to about one tenth of the matter employed, and which was found to be alumina. Other quantities of carmine were treated with a solution of caustic potash, which completely dissolved then, with the exception of a beautiful red powder, not acted on by potash and concentrated acids, and which was recognized to be red sulphuret of mercury or vermillion. This matter, evidently foreign to the carmine, appears to have been added in order to increase its weight.

The preceding observations and experiments seem calculated to throw some light on the art of dyeing scarlet and crimson. The former is effected by employing a cochineal bath, to which there have been added, in determinate proportions, acidulous tartrate of potash, and nitro-muriac deutoxide of tin. The effect of these two salts is now well known. The former, in consequence of its excess of acid, tends to redden the colour and to precipitate it along with the animal matter; the latter acts in the same manner, at first by its excess of acid, then by the oxyde of tin which falls down also with the carmine and animal matter, and is fixed on the wool, with which it has of itself a strong tendency to combine. MM. Pelletier and Caventou remark, that "to obtain a beautiful shade, the muriate of tin ought to be entirely at the maximum of oxidizement; and it is in reality in this state that it must exist in the solution of tin prepared according to the proportions prescribed in M- Berthollet's treatise of dyeing."

We hence see why, in dyeing scarlet, the employment of alum is carefully avoided, as this salt tends to convert the shade to a crimson. The presence of an alkali would seem less to be feared. The alkali would occasion, no doubt, a crimson-colored bath; but it would be easy in this case to restore the color, by using a large quantity of tartar. We should, therefore, procure the advantage of having a bath better charged with colouring matter and animal substance. It is for experience on the large scale to determine this point. As to the earthy salts, they must be carefully avoided; and if the waters be selenitish, it would be a reason for adding a little alkali.

To obtain crimson, it is sufficient, as we know, to add alum to the cochineal bath, or to boil the scarlet cloth in alum water. It is also proper to diminish the dose of the salt of tin, since it is found to counteract the action of the alum.

The alkalis ought to be rejected as a means of changing scarlet to crimson. In fact, crimsons by this process cannot be permanent color, as they pass into red by the action of acids.

According to M. Von Grotthus, carmine may be deprived of its golden shade by ammonia, and subsequent treatment with acetic acid and alcohol. Since this fact was made known, M. Herschel, colour maker at Halle, has prepared a most beautiful carmine.

The officers of Her Majesty's Customs have lately detected a system of adulterating cochineal, which has been practised for many years upon a prodigious scale by a mercantile house in London. I have analyzed about 100 samples of such cochineal, from which it appears that the genuine article is moistened with gum-water, agitated in a box or leather bag, first, with sulphate of baryta in fine powder, afterwards with bone or ivory black, to give it the appearance of negra cochineal, and then dried. By this means about 12 per cent. of the worthless heavy spar is sold at the price of cochineal, to the enrichment of the sophisticators, and the disgrace and injury of British trade and manufactures.

The specific gravity of genuine cochineal is 1.25; that of the cochineal loaded with the barytic sulphate 1.35. It was taken in oil of turpentine and reduced to water as unity, because the waxy fat of the insects prevent the intimate contact of the latter liquid with them, and the ready expulsion of air from their wrinkled surface. They are not at all acted upon by the oil, but are rapidly altered by water, especially when they have been gummed and barytified.

The quantities of cochineal imported into the United Kingdom in the following years were:-
1827. 320,722
1828. 258,032
1829. 288,456
1830. 316,589
1831. 244,371
1832. 388,478
1833. 359,381
1834. 410,387
1835. 418,320

The quantities re-exported were: -
145,756 158,109 153,738 100,059 168,329 138,270 130,732 265,490 352,023

Humboldt states that so long ago as the year 1736, there was imported into Europe from South America cochineal to the value of 15 millions of francs. Its high price had for a long time induced dyers to look out for cheaper substitutes in dyeing red, and since science has introduced so many improvements in tinctorial processes, bot madder and lac have been made to supersede cochineal to a very great extent. Its price has, in consequence of this substitution, as well as from more successful modes of cultivation, fallen very greatly of late years. At present it is only 7s. per lb. in London. See SCARLET DYEING.

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