Cochineal are insects that did not exist in the "Old World" before conquistadors brought the insects across the Atlantic Ocean—as pigment and ink. After Hernán Cortés reported back to Spain on the small creatures used to make red dye in Mexico, the dye spread all throughout New Spain and then to countries such as France, Denmark, and England, all of which attempted to harvest cochineal in their colonies, to varying degrees of success.
Medicinal recipe books, such as the one pictured to the left, often used crushed cochineal as an ingredient. People got physically close to the tiny bugs, yet often did not realize that their proximity to cochineal was present in their lives beyond balms or salves. Many people did not understand the nature of the insects that provided the dye, or even that the life form involved was an insect, as opposed to other creatures such as worms. As documented in the Oxford English Dictionary, W. Rutty wrote in the 1729-30 Philosophical transactions that "The Curious may be now assured of a Thing which has been very uncertain for so many Years, that the Cochineal were really little Animals," continuing a thread regarding awareness of the insect also sought out by J. Florio in 1598, who wrote of "a kind of rich flie or graine coming out of India to dye scarlet with, called Cutchenele." In 1604, E. Grimeston excitedly labeled his cochineal concept as "small wormes."
In his 2021 Modern Language Association convention talk, McGill Assistant Professor Michael Nicholson described the Romantic sympathy for the squashed bug. The writers expressing surprise at cochineal often display this reaction through their wonder at the dye's origin. They want to share the news of the dye.
Those who worked the dai