Death in the Walls: How Scheele’s Green Poisoned Victorian Britain

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The Arsenic Waltz. Punch, 1862. Cartoon mocking the popularity of arsenic dyes.

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.

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The Great Exhibition of 1851. If you listen closely, you may be able to hear William Morris vomiting outside.

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

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Embroidery Woman. Georg Kersting, 1817

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.

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William Morris’ Trellis pattern (1862) was one containing arsenic pigment

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.

Happy Halloween,

Jessica Cale

Sources

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.

Nineteenth Century Skin Care: Ten Tips from The Ugly Girl Papers

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“Entirely harmless.”

I recently came across a nineteenth century guide to beauty called The Ugly Girl Papers. A collection of articles written by S.D. Powers for Harper’s Bazar in the 1870s, it contains everything from dieting advice (don’t eat) to cures for toothaches (opium and alcohol). There are so many different topics covered in the book’s three hundred pages that we could easily devote dozens of posts to it. This week, we’ll start with skincare.

I’m on vacation this week, so naturally, I want to look my best. I was somewhat dismayed—but unsurprised—the learn that at thirty, I am officially past it.

“The latest authorities in social science assert that woman’s prime of youth is twenty-six, moving the barriers a good ten years ahead from the old standard of the novelist, whose heroines are always in the dew of sixteen. In the very first place, one may boldly say that beauty, or rather fascination, is not a matter of youth, and no woman ought to sigh over her years till she feels the frost creeping into her heart … a high-bred beauty of thirty, if well preserved, may dispute the palm. Women who look their thirties in the face should not lay down the scepter of life, or fancy that its delights for them are over. They are young while they seem young.”

Well, crap. So how do I go about preserving what looks I have left before the frost creeps into my heart? Good skin is crucial: “Nothing is so attractive, so suggestive of purity of mind and excellence of body, as a clear, fine-grained skin. Strong color is not desirable.”

That makes sense. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all blessed with perfect skin. Three generations of women have sworn by Ivory soap and Vaseline for a good complexion, and I use the same brand of face powder my great-grandmother did in the 1930s (Coty). This should be easy, right?

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“Harmless as dew”

Ten Nineteenth Century Tips for a Perfect Complexion

Contract tuberculosis. Wait, what? The author does not recommend doing this, but does admit that people in the early stages of consumption or scrofula have the best skin. “Consumption leaves the skin clear and brilliant, because the morbid matters which usually pass off through the skin are eating away the life in ulcers beneath.”

We may be assured that a similar effect can be achieved by “purifying the blood.” How do we achieve this?

Eat less: Diet and exercise are crucial to maintaining a clear complexion. Okay, I can see that. She tells a story of how she learned to live on very little in the name of achieving good skin:

“When recovering from severe nervous prostration, years ago, the writer found her appetite gone. The least morsel satisfied hunger, and more produced a repugnance she never tried to overcome. She resumed study six hours a day and walked two miles every day from the suburbs to the center of the city, and back again. Breakfast usually was a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak or soup, and took it.”

I take my health seriously, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to live on nothing more than a handful of fruit and a single graham cracker every day. In case it wasn’t clear the author has a pretty severe eating disorder, she also suggests the next tip…

Purge with Charcoal: One fool-proof way to purify the blood is to use charcoal as a purgative. Not only can you clean your face with it, but your guts as well!

“To clear the complexion, take a teaspoon of charcoal well mixed in water or honey for three nights, then use a simple purgative to remove it from the system. It acts like calomel, with no bad effects, purifying the blood more effectively than anything else. But some simple aperient must not be omitted, or the charcoal will remain in the system, a mass of festering poison, with all the impurities it absorbs.”

That’s right, you should purge with charcoal for three nights in order for this to be effective. If a “mass of festering poison” in your stomach doesn’t sound great, she does point out that it’s better than calomel, or mercury chloride, which was commonly used in medicine and face cream. You can read more about calomel here.

Alternatively, you can…

Use Opium as a Skin Tonic

“The opium found in the stalks of flowering lettuce refines the skin singularly, and may be used clear, instead of the soap which sells so high. Rub the milky juice collected from broken stems of coarse garden lettuce over the face at night, and wash with a solution of ammonia in the morning.”

Yes, you read that right. The opium found in lettuce. What the what? It turns out that she’s not completely off her rocker. The “milky juice” in lettuce stalks is a fluid called Lactacarium, otherwise known as “lettuce opium.” It is a mild sedative and can produce feelings of euphoria. It can also be reduced to a thick substance that can be smoked like opium. It was a drug in the United States in the nineteenth century and seen as a weaker alternative to the real thing.

Learn something new every day.

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“Absolutely harmless”

Wrap Your Face in Dandelion Leaves…for Six Weeks

“A small dose of taraxacum (dandelion) every other night will assist in refining the skin. But it will be at least six weeks’ work to effect the desired change; and it will be a zealous girl who submits to the discomfort of the mask for that length of time. The result pays. The compress acts like a mild but imperceptible blister, and leaves a new skin, soft as an infant’s.”

So before there was microdermabrasion, you could wrap your face in stinging dandelion leaves for six weeks to raise a giant blister over your face that could be peeled off and voila.

Beat the Heat with Cream of Tartar and Saltpeter

“In the summer the system should be kept cool by bathing at night and morning, and by tart drinks containing cream of tartar. Small quantities of nitre, prescribed by the physician, may be taken by very sanguine persons who suffer with heat.”

Nitre (potassium nitrate), also known as saltpeter, is an ingredient in gun powder.

I’m not sure I should be drinking it.

Avoid Cold

“Be careful, of all things, to avoid a chill. This deadens the skin, paints blue circles round the eyes, and leaves the hands an uncertain color.”

Goodness, I wouldn’t want my hands to be an uncertain color underneath my gloves. My God, what would people think?

Take Arsenic Pills

“Bohemian countesses over thirty may go to arsenic springs, as they were wont to do, for the benefit of their complexions; but the home bath-room is more efficacious than even the minute doses of quicksilver with which the ladies of George the First’s court used to poison themselves—a primitive way of getting at the virtues of the blue-pill.”

Those primitive fools! Fortunately for those who did not have access to arsenic springs, arsenic supplements were available and widely prescribed for weight loss and clear skin. They were absolutely poison, and while they were causing extreme harm to the body, they would also cause the complexion to become pale, transparent, and slightly blue – the next best thing to dying of tuberculosis.

Use Tar as a Face Mask

“Even hunters bear witness to its excellence in leaving the skin fair and innocent. Thus runs the formula, simple enough, in all conscience, yet how few will have the boldness to try it: Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s.”

I’m not sure which hunters were using this tar face mask, but the idea of all the men in my family sleeping with tar on their faces is hilarious. It does sound a bit like something that happens to you before you’re covered in feathers. Aaaaaaand now I’m thinking about Poe’s Hopfrog.

Hopefully no one will set fire to you while you have this crap on your face.

Have a Daughter? Guarantee her Future Beauty With Malnutrition!

“Some mothers are so anxious to secure this grace for their daughters that they are kept on the strictest diet from childhood. The most dazzling Parian could not be more beautiful that the cheek of a child I once saw who was kept on oat-meal porridge for this effect. At a boarding-school, I remember, a fashionable mother gave strict injunctions that her daughter should touch nothing but brown bread and syrup. This was hard fare; but the carmine lips and magnolia brow of the young lady were the envy of her schoolmates, who, however, were not courageous enough to attempt such a regime for themselves.”

As nice as it would be to have “carmine lips and a magnolia brow,” eating nothing but bread and syrup is a terrible idea, and even worse if you’re inflicting this diet on a child. In the nineteenth century you might be able to get away with it as a wealthy eccentric, but these days, Child Services would and should be called.

Wow! I hope you have learned as much as I have today. While some of the things suggested in the book have merit and are still used in some capacity in cosmetics today (sulphur and carbolic acid, for example), I have never been so grateful for my soap.

Jessica Cale

Source

Powers, S.D. The Ugly-Girl Papers; or, Hints for the Toilet. Reprinted from “Harper’s Bazar.” New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square. https://archive.org/stream/uglygirlpapersor00powerich#page/v/mode/1up

What is the craziest beauty treatment you’ve heard of? Do you know of any that actually work? Leave your thoughts in the comments to keep the conversation going!