Now held up by some as people of taste, the Victorians were magpies, associating clutter, knickknacks, and complicated patterns with comfort. Minimalism was not part of the conversation, and behind the dozens of paintings, engravings, and reproductions you could expect to find on the walls of an upper middle-class household, the walls would be bursting with a kaleidoscope of color.
Mass production allowed people on almost any income to paper and carpet their houses cheaply. Cylinder printing and the development of artificial dye following chemist William Perkin’s discovery of mauveine in 1856 meant that even the most modest of Britain’s houses could be colorful. Elaborate patterns with multiple colors were popular, the brighter the better. Plaids and three-dimensional flower patterns sold well, and many of the more expensive patterns were detailed with gold leaf that would fade to brown with the passage of time. To the modern eye, many of these would be frankly nauseating, and we are not the only people to think so.
As a response to the wildly popular French Industrial Exposition of 1844, Britain held the Great Exhibition of 1851. Intended to showcase industrial design from around the world, it ran from May until October in the Crystal Palace, a temporary structure erected for the purpose in Hyde Park. It was so popular that an estimated six million people–one third of Britain’s population at the time–visited, generating enough revenue in ticket sales to not only cover the cost of the event, but the surplus was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum. Queen Victoria herself visited three times.
The exhibition was a hit, but not everyone enjoyed it. William Morris attended and according to Liza Picard, he “so deeply, viscerally, deplored the examples of modern taste on view there that he had to leave, and be sick outside.” That’s right, the decorative arts on show at the Great Exhibition were so horrible that William Morris vomited. When he recovered, he got to work. Ten years later he founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company (later known just as Morris and Co.).
William Morris became a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, a response to the haphazard aesthetic resulting from mass production, cheap materials, and artificial dyes cluttering the nation’s sitting rooms. As a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Morris viewed the middle ages with a certain nostalgia, longing for a time of artistic and moral integrity before the advent of disposable furnishings. He founded Morris and Co. to produce furniture, tiles, textiles, and other household items using high quality materials and traditional methods. Although his ideals were socialist at heart, only the very wealthy were able to afford them at the time. One of their most popular products that remains popular to this day was their wallpaper. Morris’ Acanthus pattern from 1876 was printed with thirty blocks and fifteen different colors of dye.
Decor to Die For
Scheele’s Green was a vibrant, arsenic-heavy pigment so popular it could be found throughout Britain and much of the Continent throughout the nineteenth century. It was used as a dye in wallpaper, carpet, paint, clothing, children’s toys, candy, cake decorations, and artificial flowers. Everyone used it to dye their products, including William Morris. It was so popular, Britain was said to be bathed in it. It is estimated that by 1858, there were one hundred million square miles of Scheele’s Green wallpaper in Britain alone.
As early as 1839, German chemist Leopold Gmelin noted that damp rooms papered with the color produced a toxic acid within the walls and warned the people of Germany against using it by publishing his findings in Karslruher Zeitung, the daily newspaper. Reports of illnesses and deaths in Britain supported his findings.
Soon after Gmelin published his report, four children from London’s Limehouse district tragically fell ill and died of respiratory troubles after their room was papered in green. When the paper was tested, it was found to contain three grains of arsenic per square foot, a lethal dose for anyone, let alone children. Girls employed in the construction of artificial flowers in Clerkenwell were poisoned over time by the arsenic used to dye the leaves.
In 1857, physician William Hinds reported extreme nausea, cramps, and light-headedness every night in his study after he had papered it with Scheele’s Green. Suspecting the paper, he had it removed and his symptoms resolved. He concluded that, “a great deal of slow poisoning is going on in Britain.”
Although arsenic was found in many common products, it was the wallpaper that caused the most serious issues. They didn’t have to lick it to fall ill, either. Wallpaper dyed with Scheele’s Green could poison the house’s occupants slowly by releasing poison dust into the air. The dust was inhaled or absorbed through the skin. The Lancet reported that the playroom of a three-year old boy who had died from it was covered in arsenic dust. His was not the only room full of it; arsenic dust could be found lining the picture frames, shelves, knickknacks, and all of the eclectic clutter that covered the Victorians’ walls and floors.
Unfortunately, Arsenic poisoning could not be prevented by a thorough dusting. In 1891, Italian physician Barolomeo Gosio confirmed the damp and mold living in the wallpaper paste and the walls of the houses metabolized the arsenic to produce a poisonous gas later identified as trimethylarsine.
Throughout the nineteenth century, there were countless reports of related illnesses and deaths. People wasted away in bright green rooms, or died suddenly when green candles were lit. Arsenic is also a powerful carcinogen, so those not poisoned quickly could still face serious health problems over time. The toxicity of the dye was compounded by the fact that windows were kept closed against the pollution in the air outside, keeping the occupants boxed inside walls emitting poison gas.
Even William Morris, the champion of quality furnishings, used the pigment in many of his pieces produced between 1864 and 1875. It’s worth noting that Morris also owned Devon Great Consols, the largest arsenic producer in the world at that time, and his profits from it made the founding of Morris and Co. possible. Although his own workers in DGC were frequently ill and periodically dropped dead of lung disease, Morris dismissed the suggestion that arsenic might be the cause. The toxicity of Scheele’s Green had been suspected since the 1830s, but Morris assumed if the danger was real, it would have been publically confirmed. Fortunately, the company that produced his wallpaper, Jeffreys and Co., were convinced enough to change their green dye in 1875. Morris also resigned as director of DGC the same year.
The turning point for Scheele’s Green came in 1879 when a foreign dignitary visiting Queen Victoria became seriously ill in a guest room papered in the color. Victoria was so horrified, she ordered all the green paper to be removed from Buckingham Palace immediately. Following the queen’s example, the public stopped buying green wallpaper or sought brands that used arsenic-free dye. Years after it was replaced with the far less toxic zinc green, Scheele’s Green was repurposed as an insecticide.
After fifty years of deaths appearing to be caused by the wallpaper, the National Health Society drew up a bill asking for a total ban on the use of arsenic in household products in the 1880s. Unfortunately, arsenic production was extremely profitable, and the bill was rejected by the physician MP who received it. Parliament dismissed it and did not discuss it again.
No legislation was ever passed in Britain preventing the production of arsenic wallpaper.
Ball, Philip. William Morris Made Poisonous Wallpaper. Nature, June 12th, 2003.
Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home. Norton, 2003.
Haslam, Jessica Charlotte. Deadly Decor: A Short History of Arsenic Poisoning in the Nineteenth Century. Res Medica, Journal of the Royal Medical Society. Volume 21, Issue 1.
Meharg, Andy. The Arsenic Green. Nature, June 12th, 2003.
Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain. Constable & Robinson, 2008.
Picard, Liza. Victorian London. St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
Further Reading: If you’re curious about The Great Exhibition, click here to view Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 online. Loads of wonderful colored illustrations.