Thursday, 12 March 2015

'The Age of Arsenic'

'The Arsenic Waltz' Punch Magazine, 1862
When you think of any middle class Victorian home it is easy to conjure up images of the ‘angel of the home’ doting upon her husband and family, and, particularly in literature, was regarded as a refuge for the man within society (Calder, 10) and indeed a “place of Peace” (Calder, 7). However this period where the home and domestic peace was becoming more and more important to the emerging middle classes, was exactly the time when people, mothers, fathers, children and families were all at the most risk within their own four walls. In every room a new threat could be found; children’s toys were often decorated with toxic lead paint, early gas lighting and heating was highly dangerous (exploding boilers were not uncommon) and in the ongoing quest for female beauty the corset provided a source of constant suffocation and dislodging and misshaping of internal organs was alarmingly common ( However the biggest risk to human life in the harmonious domestic setting was Arsenic; ingested, inhaled and absorbed possibly by thousands through so many common household items!

The most common and biggest cause of death by Arsenic could be found in the wallpaper of a staggeringly high number of homes in Victorian Britain, so much so that “Victorian Britain was said to be ‘bathed’ in Scheele’s Green” (Haslam), Scheele’s Green being the name of the green dye most commonly used in wallpaper manufacturing that was made using toxic levels of arsenic; this green was popularised by arsenic manufacturers and designers such as William Morris (Ball) because it was cheap to make and had such an attractive vivid green colour (Haslam). Possibly the most famous example of this kind of poisoning was that of Napoleon Bonaparte, who died in 1821, after his exile to St Helena in 1815; for many years his death was a mystery and foul play was indeed suspected from the British, but it emerged over 160 years after his death that he had suffered from Gosio’s Disease, which was essentially long term arsenic poisoning from low levels of trymethyl arsine found in the vapour released from the vividly green wallpaper (

However arsenic was not just found lurking in the walls of the middle classes, the kitchen was also a source of potential illness or even death. In the early half of the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for food to be ‘adulterated’ a term used for the swapping of ingredients of manufactured foods for inferior quality or even non-food ingredients.  (Whorton, 139) Adulterated foods were usually corrupted with nontoxic substances, that while upsetting the quality and taste of the food, probably weren’t going to kill you, such as Plaster of Paris and cheap herbs, flavourings and colourants (although colourants were more likely to be toxic and lead based). (Whorton, 139) Although, often, accidentally and on purpose, arsenic managed to find itself in to many homes across the country, for example sometimes residue could be left in repurposed arsenic bottles used for wine and root beer (Whorton, 146). But the worst case of mass accidental arsenic poisoning came in 1858 and came to be known as ‘the Bradford incident’ – where a sweet manufacturer seeking large quantities Plaster of Paris was accidentally sold Large quantities of arsenic in a deadly mix up – resulting in the death of “more than a score of people and sickened ten times that” – the times described the sweets as “little pills of sugared death” (Whorton, 141). As the arsenic was sold as a while powder these kinds of mix ups were even more common within the home itself, with the fine white powder being mistaken for sugar, salt and medicine (although was also genuinely prescribed as medicine for a time for morning sickness []) regularly as It was readily available and cheap to buy as rat poison to anyone and kept in many kitchen cupboards.

William Morris wallpaper design
using Scheele's Green.
Food and the walls of your home weren’t the only dangers you would encounter in the Victorian home, even the clothes that you wore (if you were a woman) could be doubly dangerous, while bearing the health risks of a corset, your dress could be full of deadly arsenic dye. Upon examination one dress could be found to be carrying 1000 grains of deadly arsenic, suggesting that the wearer “carried in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball rooms” (Whorton, 181) – this deadly dance is illustrated in a cartoon from Punch! Magazine that was published in 1862 called ‘The Arsenic Waltz’ ( the cartoon depicts a female skeleton sitting and adorned in a lavish ball gown (that can be assumed to be dyed emerald/ Scheele’s green) while a male skeleton is bowing toward her and gesturing to dance. The skeletal figures drawn in this way illustrate just how deadly these gowns could be, and that the wearer (as well as anyone courting them) was as good as dead before they even got to dance.  While this is a humorous take on the ongoing arsenic based epidemic it shows just how much more aware the press and therefore the public were becoming of the issue later on in the period.

It was this increased awareness (although women continued to wear emerald green despite warnings), as well as a famous incident involving Queen Victoria, whereby she ordered the removal of all Emerald Green Wallpaper from Buckingham palace in 1879 after a visiting dignitary fell ill from arsenic poisoning (Haslam), that prompted arsenic to be seen as a threat to public health. Whilst the government rejected a bill in the early 1880’s calling for the banning of arsenic in domestic goods, the general public were inclined to “take matters in to their own hands” (Haslam) with newspaper campaigns calling for at home testing, that included burning products to see if they emitted a garlic odour and using drops of hydrochloric acid to see if products turned blue. (Haslam) Around this time there was a move towards manufacturers stating that products were ‘arsenic free’ on their packaging, while that was not necessarily always truthful, it shows a growing desire from the public to not have arsenic containing products in their homes. While there was no official legislation banning arsenic at this time, its use faded from production and going in to the 20th century was largely not used in domestic products.
It’s clear that in this age of industrialisation and invention, the domestic environment was more dangerous than ever! In an age where little was known about the dangers and health risks of different chemicals it is easy to see how such deadly amounts of arsenic found themselves in the homes of thousands – even the queen herself! Even today evidence can be found of this ‘Age of Arsenic’ in dresses kept in various museums for example, dresses being kept in the Bata Museum in Toronto today still contain toxic amounts of arsenic ( – showing just how high the levels of arsenic was in many products during this period! 

Works Cited
Ball, Philip. 'William Morris Made Poisonous Wallpaper'. news@nature (2003): n. pag. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
Calder, Jenni. The Victorian Home. London: Batsford, 1977. Print.
Haslam, Jessica Charlotte. 'Deadly Décor: A Short History Of Arsenic Poisoning In The Nineteenth Century'. Res Medica 21.1 (2013): 76. Web.,. 'Hidden Killers Of The Victorian Home | History Extra'. N.p., 2013. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.,. 'Deadly Victorian Fashions'. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.,. 'Victorian Cartoons From Punch | PUNCH Magazine Cartoon Archive'. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.,. 'Arsenic Poisoning And Napoleon'. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.

Whorton, James C. The Arsenic Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

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