Killer Wallpaper: A Green to Dye For
I am certain that there are others like me out there that get just as excited over flashy wallpapers as I do. Typically if other people around me comment on how ugly or dated a wallpaper looks, I’m standing there wondering if I could find a reproduction. The Victorians did not shy away from bright colors and patterns in their homes, and they were certainly unaware that some of those home design choices could cost them their lives. Sounds dramatic, but there was a particular shade of green that homeowners in the Victorian era were simply mad over. Let’s talk about Scheele green.
“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.”-The Yellow wallpaper
Household Uses for Arsenic:
Arsenic is one of the most toxic metals derived from the natural world and we are well aware of the dangers of it today. Unfortunately, arsenic could be found in countless household items in the Victorian era because people were ignorant to the dangers that lurked on their walls, in their clothes, and on their vanities. Many makeup products, paints and inks, medicines, fertilizers, and food dyes contained arsenic (Rove). In 1775, a Swedish Chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented an arsenic pigment now known as Scheele green (Feldkamp). The color was incredibly vivid and stable and became popular across Europe and America.
William Morris, a British textile designer and poet, brought arsenic into the home with his fantastical wallpaper designs. Even though green was a popular color, it has since been concluded that almost every color in his wallpaper produced before 1870 contained some level of arsenic (Ratnaike).
How Wallpaper Hurt People:
You don’t have to eat arsenic to be affected by it. Moisture and contact can release dangerous vapors that are deadly when inhaled and your body can absorb the toxins through the skin as well (Feldkamp). It was a common notion in the 19th century that small doses of arsenic were harmless and many people refused to believe it was actually dangerous at all. Arsenic quantities that are dangerous to children and the elderly would have been metabolized by most healthy adults, thus adding to the general public’s lack of concern.
Families were becoming ill, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that doctors began suspecting the wallpaper (Feldkamp). Despite the fact that some people still believed arsenic was perfectly harmless, the 1870s saw the rise in ‘arsenic-free’ wallpaper and other products.
The Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning:
Arsenic poisoning can have nasty effects on the body. Some of the most common symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, skin rashes, respiratory failure, and cognitive impairment (Ratnaike). Thank goodness I can decorate my home today without the fear of dying from arsenic poisoning. I’m sure there are a ton of other things to worry about, but at least my wallpaper is reliable.
Until Next Time
- Feldkamp, Katherine. “Death on the Doorstep: Arsenic in Victorian Wallpaper.” Saint Louis Art Museum. 24 September, 2020. Accessed 31 August, 2021. slam.org/blog/arsenic-in-victorian-wallpaper/.
- Ratnaike, R.N. “Acute and Chronic Arsenic Toxicity.” BMJ Journals. Accessed 1 September, 2021. pmj.bmj.com/content/7919331391.
- Rove, Haniya. “When Poison was Everywhere.” The Atlantic. 11 October, 2016. theatlantic.com/healtharchive/2016/10/the-era-when-poison-was-everywhere/503654.