Drop Dead Gorgeous: A TL;DR Tale of Arsenic in Victorian Life
June 11, 2014
Green with Envy (and Arsenic)
It sounds like something out of a gothic horror novel: women fainting away in green dresses and brave leaders like Napoleon dropping dead in green-painted rooms. I recently came across an article about a museum exhibit about the dangers and frivolities of Victorian fashion, “Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.” At the forefront of the exhibit article is a bright green 1860s ballgown on a leering skeleton:
Does this color make me look too pale?
This dress is a “Poison Green” dress– one that has been dyed with an arsenic-containing chemical dye. Scheele’s Green and Paris Green were the premier green pigments of the late 18th and early 19th century. Their bright, rich color enchanted fashion and interior designers and they used the colorants on everything from curtains to candles.
I think you may be going a bit overboard with the Scheele’s Green, madam…
The pigment is made from a variety of compounds, but the ingredient that everyone zeros in on is copper arsenite, which, as you probably guessed by the name, contains arsenic. The factory workers, dyers, and artisans that produced arsenic-infused items frequently suffered from arsenic poisoning. Painters, for example, would get sick from ingesting the paint on their brushes. How? They used their lips to get a sharp point on a paintbrush (this also caused lead and radium poisoning in many paint workshops). Scheele’s Green was reported to have killed children who ate sweets colored with the dye and was especially nasty when it was added to flocked wallpaper which flaked into dust. Throughout the 19th century, lurid tales of dresses dyed with the arsenic-infused Paris and Scheele’s Green poisoning people filled magazines and newspapers.
Scheele’s Green was also used to make silk and paper flowers that were popular as wreathes and headdresses in the mid-19th century.
Arsenic-laced dresses, however, were hardly the worst of the Victorian’s worries. Arsenic was a major problem in an era when chemicals were being created and sold on a larger scale than ever before. Victorians had genuine reason to be wary of arsenic! In a world where hundreds of similar-looking white chemical powders were common, even one mislabeled jar could mean the difference between an uncomfortable mouthful of chalk or a gruesome death. In one terrible accident in 1858, a confectioner mistakenly used 12 pounds of arsenic in his sweets, poisoning himself and 200 others and killing 20. It became clear that arsenic needed to be much more tightly controlled. However, regulations did not fully pass until the late 19th and early 20th centuries and arsenic-laced paint continued to be produced well into the 20th century.
Besides its brilliant color, arsenic-laced paints and wallpapers were popular because of arsenic’s insecticidal qualities. Treating your walls prevented ants, termites, and other pests from eating you out of house and home. Unfortunately, it could poison more than just insects and rodents…
In reality, arsenic poisoning occurred frequently in the past because arsenic was found everywhere in pre-20th century life, not just in poorly regulated dyes. Some uses were obviously problematic and unsafe: for example, arsenic had been a popular cosmetic ingredient since ancient times, despite its known toxicity.
“Safe” generally mean that the compound contained less than 1/10th of a gram of arsenic. Otherwise, it would be labelled as poison.
But our ancestors were not blind to the fact that arsenic could kill—many notable cases of deliberate arsenic poisoning are blotted throughout history. Still, like many potential deadly compounds, small doses of arsenic would be used to treat diseases as a form of chemo therapy. Arsenic trioxide (the same compound from the 1858 candy poisoning) was used historically as a treatment for cancerous growths and it is still used to treat certain forms of cancer today. It was also used to treat syphilis. Disease was the number one killer in Victorian society. The role bacteria played in the spread of disease had not yet been directly proven, nor had the antibiotic penicillin been discovered. Cancer then was just as frightening and even more deadly than it is today (Warning: link contains graphic images!). Everyone was eager to find cures for deadly diseases, so they experimented with different chemical combinations in an attempt to survive. Arsenic and many other chemo therapy drugs are quite poisonous which is exactly why they work to kill cancerous cells. They may be deadly, but if monitored carefully, they can save lives.
Each pill in this bottle is 10mg, or about 1/10th a lethal dose. Arsenic medications were woefully under-regulated in the 19th century, but was plentiful, which led to a rash of poisonings both deliberate and accidental. Unsubstantiated home remedies, self-medication, and cases of mistaken identity were the cause of most arsenic deaths.
In addition to exposure through human-initiated means, naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water is found around the world, including all American drinking water, especially in the Southwestern United States (Where I grew up in New Mexico, the water is frequently very hard and contains many potentially harmful substances like radium and high concentrations of fluoride). Victorians didn’t have standardized drinking water parameters regulated by agencies or advanced filtration systems. Many Victorians used hand-dug wells, natural springs, or local creeks as their main water sources, many of which contained arsenic. Depending on their location, their water could contain enough arsenic to be harmful after long periods of time. The increase in gold mining activities during the 19th century lead to further contamination of drinking water, thanks to gold’s nasty habit of hanging out near arsenic-containing ores. Many miners and pioneers in the western United States were affected by arsenic-contaminated water from mine runoff.
A modern map showing the levels of arsenic in the groundwater surrounding Nevada’s gold mines. While the arsenic was already present in the ground water before the mines, mining released more arsenic into the environment, a problem we are still dealing with today.
Other sources of arsenic include many foods like leafy greens, rice, and seafood which naturally accumulate arsenic over time.
You are exposed to and ingest arsenic everyday, too, but thanks to modern laws and regulations, you don’t experience anywhere near the amount of exposure our ancestors did! Arsenic poisoning is a matter of quantity. Unless you get a massive dose all at once from a jealous rival or by drinking paint, any arsenic you are exposed to generally gets filtered out of your body within a few days. In order to get a lethal dose, a human has to consume or absorb between “70 to 200 mg or 1 mg/kg/day” or be constantly exposed over a long period of time.
There is some truth to the Poison Green dress tales: People with sensitive skin could experience skin irritation due to either the arsenic, copper, or other chemical compounds present in many mid-19th century aniline dyes. Despite what all those complexion-clearing lotion ads say, topical arsenic poisoning produces nasty wart-like eruptions on the skin. A report done in the 1890s revealed that about 20% of dress goods (fabrics for clothing) contained more than 3mg of arsenic per meter. If you figure in that the average dress takes 7 meters, the average daily dose received from the most poisonous of dresses , which turned out to be a red and black, is 21mg– quite a hit! Indeed, most reports of people becoming ill because of fabric and papers are associated with deep blue and red colors, not green. The green gowns likely got their ill reputation because of the the pigment’s name “Paris/Emerald/Scheele’s Green,” when in actuality, any color of dye could contain arsenic compounds. In addition, there were still plenty of green dyes that did not use arsenic at all.
Even if a gown is dyed with copper arsenite, the wearer would get only a tiny dose since the arsenic-infused fashion fabric rarely comes in direct contact with skin thanks to the dress lining, petticoats, corset cover, corset, and chemise worn underneath it. The article states: “When asked if the dress poses any danger still, Semmelhack pauses. ‘We’ve been counseled not to lick it,’ she says, laughing.”
Afternoon Dress, circa 1865
This dress was dyed with arsenic green. Please do not lick it!
Stockings, on the other hand, were a bigger problem than dresses. Many contained more arsenic than dress goods and since they were worn directly on the skin, they led to far more illness. The paper flowers used to decorate such gowns were dangerous because paper goods often contained far higher amounts of arsenic than fabric goods.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a women is locked in a small room in order to cure her “hysteria,” but the woman only grows more nervous, paranoid, and unsettled. She becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the room in which she sees shapes and people. The story ends with her crawling in circles around the room, wearing a groove in the wallpaper as she goes around and around. Her condition likely was not helped if the wallpaper contained high levels of arsenic, which would have made her feel even more ill and often produces delirium and shock in acute cases.
The majority of sufferers were not the high-class women wearing the gowns, but the lower class factory workers, painters, wallpaper installers, and laundresses who spent long hours exposed to the chemicals in a time before safety equipment and monitoring.
When combined with the many other sources of daily arsenic exposure, it invokes a sense of wonder that anyone could survive the Victorian era at all! It makes you feel lucky to live in an era when the Pantone Color of the Year won’t send us to the emergency room!
while these tales are true, you must remember that life is full of dangers and we are not immune simply because we no longer have to worry about the same troubles as our ancestors. Thanks to their experiences and resulting advances, we are able to live somewhat safer lives than they did, at least as far as arsenic exposure is concerned. We’ve traded that risk for others our Victorian predecessors never dealt with: cars that kills literally MILLIONS of people every year, electricity everywhere, mobile phones that distract us to death, automatic rifles firing 800 bullets a minute, a rise in severe food allergies, nuclear weapons, and, let’s not forget, that lead paint is still a thing. However, just as you go about your daily life despite these risks, so did our ancestors. Just as you know to avoid driving recklessly or sticking a fork in an electrical outlet, so our ancestors tried their best to avoid making deadly mistakes. Many of our risky behaviors are slow killers, though. Perhaps future generations will look back at our microbead-filled shower gels the same way we look back at arsenic face wafers and cringe.
If you have a Paris or Scheele’s Green gown in your collections or are visiting one in a museum, the actual risk posed by the arsenic levels in the dress is small so long as it is not frequently handled. Green dresses are one of the least harmful of the arsenic-treated items out there, but since such dresses were the most public and visible objects, it was easy to sensationalize and satirize them, enforcing the memorable image of a frivolous woman and her willingness to suffer ill-health for the sake of beauty. Exposure to arsenic pigments certainly wasn’t a health-conscious choice, but a woman in a green gown wouldn’t melt like the Wicked Witch or fall dead in the streets. Such tales reflect more on Victorian morality and condemnation of fashion and female vanity than they do on historical fact. However, if you have your heart set on a green Victorian dress, you should probably stick with a modern, non-arsenic based green. Sometimes sacrificing historical accuracy in favor of modernity has its advantages!
A lovely recreation of an arsenic green gown (sans the arsenic, of course!) by Hathaway of Haworths
Many of these “deadly fashion” stories served to ridicule fashion or exaggerate a few incidents into an epidemic rather than portray accurate fact. However, we do love a good horror story that makes our modern world seem safer than “back then,” so such stories keep getting circulated. Eventually it becomes difficult to discern what’s truth and what’s been tacked on for shock value. Historical sources can contain mistakes and new research often disproves historical “fact.” I try to do as much thorough research as possible, but sometimes I miss things. In this case, it’s difficult to tell how much of the 19th century research publications are accurate. Measurement systems, contaminated equipment, even instances of bad math (I found a few instances where the numbers in charts did not match numbers in the text) can all muddle a report. We cannot go back in time to double check their sources and methods! The best way to get an accurate picture of the past is to research, research, research and take nothing for granted!