March 26

62 comments

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.

First Deaths

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.

Thank you for reading this article of mine and write below your replies so that I can see them!

And please let me know your thoughts—did you enjoy the topic?

If there is anything else you’d be interested in reading about the Regency Era, feel free to let me know…

…and who knows? Maybe you will read about it soon!

Written by Olivia Bennet


Tags

Articles, Regency Romance


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  • Interesting research Miss. Bennet. It’s always a pleasure to read these articles and your novels. The one thing that I am curious about is how our looks changed so much. I mean I know that people kept intermingling but what a change in looks from the painting back then to now.

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  • I quest all eras have their nasties. Reminds me of lead paint, lead pipes, and asbestos etc. What stands out is Britain never banned arsenic based pigment. Wonder why?
    I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you

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  • That sounds about like our use of asbestos in ceiling tiles and outside wall panels etc. Lead in paint and other harmful items once thought to be safe.

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  • Truly Crazy! Old gold and silver mines in Colorado from the 1800s have water in them and the water is full of arsenic. The mine tailings are full of arsenic too.

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  • So glad I’ve never been excited about wallpaper. Really creepy when you wonder how many children died from arsenic.
    Thanks for another very interesting article.

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  • that is horrible!! I strongly suspect that is possibly part of the reason great grandpa Molteni, a hatter of connecticut, died young. maybe it was not just the mercury (or lead? can’t remember) poisoning from shaping the felt. maybe it was also the dye used on the hats. Everyone in the family worked in the hat factory, trimming hats, bookkeeping, etc. he brought the fedora to the US, from Andorno, Italy. No one in that family really lived to old age.
    I live in a 1909 home that had terrible wallpaper, felt and gilt, when I moved in. I am so glad I removed it. It was red, though. Not green.

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  • I forgot. a great great grandpa watched napoleon on the island where he died. I’m not sure if it was Elba. He was Henry Hollinsworth. he took a lock of Napoleon’s hair, at Napoleon’s request. They had become friends. Henry spoke French and English. The hair and casket knob went missing. It was thought that the lead from the sealed bottles of wine that Napoleon drank shortened his life. He had stomach contents like “coffee grounds” when examined. It was decades later speculated that he might have had a bleeding ulcer.

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  • This was an interesting history sidelight. Thank you.

    A little sidelight of my own; I just finished my first proofreading using Track Changes. That takes a little adjustment but will workout for me.

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  • I did know about this green menace but not about its possible effect upon Napoleon not knowing that his bedroom on St Helena was painted in his favourite colour green. Green is also my favourite colour but I may have to rethink this for the future, not that arsenic is still being used in the manufacture of green paint or upholstery fabrics etc. And the most surprising thing was to learn that William Morris owned the largest arsenic mine in the world!! I do love his designs in wall paper.

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    • Thank you, Irene! We’re happy you found this interesting! Research yields such wonderful results sometimes!

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  • Wow, how terrible it would be to learn you have lost 4 of your children. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to learn it was from the wallpaper. Thank you for sharing.

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  • I found your article informative and fascinating. I hope to read a book detailing such a theme such as that mentioned in your article. Looking forward to more articles and the book! LOL

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  • I had no idea William Morris owned an arsenic mine! Here in the UK we tend to revere him for his part in the Arts and Crafts movement, but actually he directly contributed to the deaths of many people, especially children. Makes you think.

    I love reading your articles, so thank you.

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  • What a great article. I had no idea that green paint was made with arsenic. It certainly explains some of the unknown reasons for so many death. I also feel that the unknown RH Factor was a big cause of infant deaths before the 1950s.

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  • I love getting these history tidbits from you, they are always very interesting and almost always have me saying WOW!!

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  • Arsenic and lead were used in cosmetics to lighten the skin in days gone by….especially during the Victorian age.

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  • How very interesting –
    I knew about the paint but
    I didn’t realize how much arsenic
    Was used
    Thank you for sharing

    Reply

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