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.

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Five Horrible Ways to Die in Restoration London

 

In my book Tyburn, the heroine, Sally, is convinced that Death is following her, and the more you read about life in Restoration London, the more you realize that she is probably right.

Seventeenth-century London was an incredibly dangerous place, and causes of death were mostly mysterious. In his Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, John Graunt offers some of the following explanations: traffic, sciatica, swine-pox, wen, lethargy, fear, sadness, itch, and rather worryingly, “mother.”

If the people living in Restoration London were lucky enough to survive childhood, they could be killed by several afflictions that no longer trouble us today. Apart from the most serious culprits like Tuberculosis and plague, people could die from as little as falling down in the uneven, filthy streets. Do you think you could survive Restoration London? Here’s what you’re up against:

95524-pestarztPlague: Which one? Both the pneumonic and the bubonic plagues claimed lives throughout the period. Infection would begin with a flea bite, and from there either spread to the lungs (pneumonic) or the lymph nodes (bubonic). The pneumonic plague resulted in death within three days. The bubonic plague could had a survival rate of about 30%, but still managed to kill an estimated 100,000 people in London alone between 1665-66.

Falling into a Plague Pit: In Journal of a Plague Year, Defoe describes an occurrence of a cart, driver, and horses crash into a plague pit where it was completely swallowed by the corpses and never recovered. There were so many of these pits and they were so large that this happened frequently. There’s a massive plague pit underneath Hyde Park that has affected the path of the Underground, and other pits are still being discovered.

84a31-dc3bcrersyphilis1496Syphilis (The Great Pox, the French Pox): Syphilis was probably brought to Europe by Columbus and had reached Naples by 1494 (thanks, jerk). It was seen as primarily a male problem, and was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores. Syphilis was treated at this stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pill to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was someone successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If you were lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, you could look forward to madness and paralysis.

Jail Fever (Epidemic Typhus): Spread through body lice, common in dirty, overcrowded conditions, it broke out mainly in jails like Newgate. It causes fever, headache, weakness, and rash, and can lead to swelling of the heart or encephalitis.

The King’s Evil (Scrofula): Tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck. It was believed to be curable by the touch of royalty as far back as Edward the Confessor. The disease often went into remission on its own, so the Royal Touch appeared to work. Charles II touched more than 90,000 people afflicted between 1660 and 1682.

Good thing Sally fancies a physician, huh?

Originally posted on Kimber Vale’s blog here. Stop by and say hi!

Five More Common Ways to Die in Restoration London

This is a page from John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality listing some of the recorded deaths from 1662. Here we have Excessive Drinking, Executed, Grief, and Leprosy, as well as “French Pox” and the King’s Evil. Although some people did die of “Itch” (12, to be precise), most deaths were caused by much scarier things. To follow up from Five Horrible Ways to Die in Restoration London, here are five of the most common (but no less horrible) ways to die in Restoration London.

Childbirth and Puerperal Fever (Childbed Fever): Complications and infections related to childbirth were the number one killer of women. Puerperal fever could be contracted during or after childbirth or miscarriage, and was often caused by genital tract sepsis from improper hygiene. Of course, they might not even get the chance to contract it: if it took too long for the afterbirth to come out, impatient midwives might reach in and just pull it out. This could result in acute inversion of the uterus, which would definitely kill them.

Being a Child: If infants survived birth, teething could kill them. Infants’ gums would sometimes be lanced for relief, after which the wounds would become infected, causing fever and death. If they made it past teething, they were vulnerable to mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, German measles, diphtheria, meningitis, erysipelas, typhus, and rickets.

Smallpox: Smallpox was incredibly infectious and could lead to death, especially in children. It was treated by bleeding and could be survived, but might cause loss of sight and scarring, and as many as half of all Londoners had smallpox scars. Smallpox scars were even seen as desirable in servants as their employers know that they would not catch the disease again.

Tuberculosis (Consumption): Probably the most prevalent killer during the Restoration period, this chronic condition was blamed on everything from witchcraft to “vapors from women.” Graunt estimated that at least 44,500 people were killed by tuberculosis between 1641 and 1661.

Fire: The Great Fire destroyed at least 13,000 houses and it’s impossible to know how many people were killed. The Bills of Mortality weren’t published that week. The areas hit the hardest were the poorest with very dense populations, and there were few remains that were recognizable as human. Fire was also the second biggest killer of women as their sleeves and skirts could easily catch while they were cooking over open fires.