The Green Death of the Victorian Era
Well, ladies and gents!
The people of the Victorian era loved green. And not just any green, but a specific deep and vibrant green.
The corresponding dye was called Scheele's Green by the Swedish pharmacist and chemist who manufactured it in 1775. In 1814 two chemists discovered an improved version of this dye, known as Paris Green.
The problem is that both of these chemicals were made of Arsenic and although their toxicity was known and expected, no one seemed to notice this…
For a whole century, Europeans, and especially Britons, completely overlooked the danger they were exposed to daily. Then the infamous metalloid, the Arsenic, was everywhere.
It was used for dyeing clothes and upholstery, even food and cosmetics. It was found in baby strollers, vegetable fertilizers and, in Austria, it was also used as a libido pill.
We've talked about the arsenic in previous articles, but do you know just how popular and deadly it was?
Well, keep reading, hun! 🙂
An Invisible Killer
If we were to choose an accessory that was a staple in every Victorian home, it's wallpapers.
Unlike the earlier Classicism and Regency, where walls usually had neutral colors and simple patterns, wallpapers now come into every home - thanks to their automated, mass production - and feature-rich patterns and vibrant colors.
We are in the time when the electricity comes into homes which means that for the first time people can brighten the interior of some rooms after sunset ... so of course, in light of electricity, they want to show off their wonderful green wallpaper!
And if it doesn't look creepy enough to cover the walls of your home with wallpapers full of deadly poison (plus sofa fabrics, painted wooden furniture, and kids' toys), consider how homebuilding combined with dampness and poor humidity ventilation, favored the development of mold between the wall and the wallpaper, which is dispersed throughout the room along with particles of deadly pigment.
Children were more susceptible to poisoning, and soon deaths appeared to be taking the form of an epidemic (eg, getting sick and dying one kid after another).
The disease progressed over a short period of time, and death came more like a relief after an agonizing and painful martyrdom. Most doctors attributed these deaths to Cholera or Diphtheria as some of the symptoms of acute Arsenic poisoning resembled these diseases, which were common in the era.
One prominent doctor named Thomas Orton nursed a family through a mysterious sickness that ultimately killed all four of their children. In desperation, one of the things he started to do was make notes about their home and its contents. He found nothing wrong with the water supply or the home’s cleanliness.
The one thing he worried about: the Turners' bedroom had green wallpaper. In the mid-19th century, some doctors began to associate these deaths with the arsenic contained in green pigments.
This theory declared that, even though nobody was eating the paper (and people did know arsenic was deadly if eaten), it could cause people to get sick and die. Upholsterers were trying to reassure the world in every way, some even wanting to eat their wallpapers to prove how safe they were.
Money over Health
William Morris was an artist and designer associated with both the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts interior design movement. He was the designer of the most famous wallpaper of the nineteenth century.
Typical were the patterns of plants in his designs, many of which were decorated with green-painted wallpapers and which he publicly proclaimed to be safe. Less known, however, was that he owned the largest arsenic mine in the world!
Despite the assurances of the experts, by the end of the century, the world was already gradually moving away from the use of these wallpapers, so manufacturers following the market trend began to produce arsenic-free wallpapers.
Note that in Britain, officially, the use of arsenic as a pigment has never been banned. Beyond the immediate victims of poisoning, no one will ever know how many people have been affected or even died due to chronic arsenic poisoning.
According to some theories, Napoleon Bonaparte's bedroom upholstery (of course, painted in his favorite, green) in the years he lived in exile on the island of Saint Helena seems to have played a role in his death.
Overwhelmed by the arsenic and other heavy metals contained in the pigments, the painters of the time were also very susceptible to this deadly combination of chemicals.
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Written by Olivia Bennet