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Please Don’t Lick The Wallpaper: Arsenic In Victorian Era Décor


Drop-dead gorgeous green ball gowns were not the only green products getting sensational headlines in the Victorian Era. That dangerous shade of Christmas trees was used on everything in Victorian Era décor from wallpaper, curtains, carpets and artificial floral arrangements to candles, ribbons and playing cards. Stories of gruesome illnesses and deaths by arsenic used to make the fashionable color became a staple of the British popular press.

Arsenic Formed A Toxic Cloud In The Home Of The Victorian Era

In his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play James C. Whorton delves into the wide-ranging presence of arsenic in daily Victorian Era life and the very fabric of the Victorian home.  In his interview with Robin Lindley he also discusses the ethical implications of toxins and big business.

Arsenic is the twentieth most common element in the Earth’s crust. As a by-product of mining for metals including gold, copper and zinc during the Industrial Revolution, arsenic became readily available by the early 1800s.
The white powder was kept in homes as a rat poison. It could be easily obtained from a pharmacist. Even a child could purchase arsenic over the counter. It was odorless and tasteless and was frequently confused with flour, baking powder or cream of tartar.

Don’t Eat That Pie!

Stories of people accidentally poisoning their family were legion. One woman killed five of her nine children with a rhubarb crumble. Another killed herself and her son with a New Year’s Eve Pudding. In 1837, 506 deaths from inadvertent consumption of arsenic were reported. The death toll by arsenic remained high for much of the Victorian Era.

Death By Exquisite Emerald Green Wallpaper

Those must-have green wallpapers of the Victorian Era resulted in thousands of deaths. The green dye was very unstable in paper products, just as it was in clothing. While some stricken children might have licked the walls (who could resist that Christmas candy green?), all they had to do was breathe.  The slightest breeze could emit vapors of toxic dust. Even if breathing these poisonous puffs was not as fatal as actually ingesting the green dyes, they could lead to a condition known as chronic arcenism.

During the 1850s, one manufacturer estimated that as many as 100 million square miles of arsenical paper existed in British homes. Another vendor claimed that he was using up to two tons of Scheele’s Green a week to meet the demand for his luxurious Christmas tree green wallpapers.

While it was good news for business, fears about the nation’s health escalated. In 1858, The Lancet described how a three-year-old boy had died after eating pigment that had flaked off the wallpaper in his nursery.

A couple in Birmingham applied bright green wallpaper to two rooms of their house and immediately suffered from headaches, inflamed eyes and sore throats. Reportedly, even their pet parrot became sick.

Queen Victoria Orders Green Paper Off Her Walls

One morning in 1879, a visiting dignitary who had stayed the night at Birmingham Palace was late for his morning meeting with Queen Victoria herself. His excuse was that he had become horribly ill from the green wallpaper in his guest bedroom.

When an investigation revealed that the wallpaper in his room was indeed colored with Scheele’s Green dye, Queen Victoria ordered every room in Buckingham Palace to be stripped of poisonous paper.

Even Napoleon Bonaparte Loved Killer Green

It was his favorite color. When he was in exile in St. Helena after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon’s luxurious room was painted a brilliant shade of arsenic green. The cause of his death in 1821 is generally believed to be stomach cancer, which has been linked to arsenic toxicity.

While many historians believe that Napoleon was intentionally poisoned, according to livescience.com, hair samples taken throughout his life show high levels of arsenic in his body. Rather than intentional poisoning, it is now believed that he was the accidental victim of his own favorite color that surrounded him throughout much his life.

Green Rules Big Business

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some of the most eminent figures in Victorian society believed that arsenic could actually be good for people.  Many doctors even prescribed it as a cure for conditions including rheumatism, erectile dysfunction, worms and morning sickness.

Demands to outlaw the manufacture of arsenical products were ignored by successive parliaments. The wealth of industry was, it seemed, more important than the health of the people. It was only as the Victorian Era drew to an end, that consumers refused to purchase killer products.  Eventually, economic pressures, not ethics, finally forced manufacturers  to find alternatives.

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