Toward the end of the 19th century, a silent pandemic had swept the country. The deadly malaise is hinted at in writing of the time, and well documented in the journals of confounded medical practitioners. A mysterious sickness would strike without warning and seemingly at random, driving certain individuals mad and rotting their flesh, while leaving others unscathed.
Children in cramped but clean Victorian tenements were falling gravely ill with symptoms of diphtheria, a contagious disease common at the time, but unvaccinated neighbours would be immune. Those affected would fail to respond to traditional diphtheria treatment. Death was certain in almost every case and the cause of the rare sickness eluded doctors for decades.
A common factor, noted one doctor after a string of widely reported deaths in the 1860s, was the lurid green wallpaper present in each victim’s home. The culprit was found to be the dye used in the production of the paper, a vibrant green pigment containing the highly toxic metalloid, arsenic. The killer, as it so often turns out, was inside the house. Plastered on every wall in beautifully decorated sheets. Wallpaper was killing people.
Like poisonous lead before it, and radioactive radium after, dousing yourself in arsenic was the deadly fashion trend of the day.
Not that Victorian people took much notice. While arsenic was known to most as a rat poison in homes (and as “inheritance powder” to knock off a wealthy grandparent), the substance found its way into every aspect of daily life and could be found in household items from food colouring and dresses to baby strollers and make-up. When mixed with paint, arsenic creates an alluring pearlescent effect, most typically a brilliant shade of green, and so it became fashionable to wear laurels and flowers painted with the dye. Like poisonous lead before it, and radioactive radium after, dousing yourself in arsenic was the deadly fashion trend of the day.
Chemists and the government were well-aware of the dangers the element posed, but demand was such that miners pulled it out of the earth in volume nonetheless. The largest of these arsenic mines was owned by renowned textile designer and social activist William Morris, who used the poisonous substance to create new and desirable paints for the burgeoning wallpaper trade.
In her book Bitten by Witch Fever, Lucinda Hawksley charts the popularity of the pigment, until its eventual demise, not at the feet of new health regulation, but with the advent of more fashionable “arsenic-free” wallpaper, which consumers bought in their droves.
Even Morris began producing his own range of non-toxic wallpapers, not out of any concern for public health, but for his bottom line.
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The infamous designer never openly conceded that his product did harm and dismissed as hysterical accusations by doctors that his dyes were killing people. He claimed in a letter to a friend that “the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.” He had wallpapered his own home with arsenic-laced paper, and, suffering no problems himself, had concluded it was safe.
Reproductions of hundreds of William Morris’s wallpaper designs can be found inside the book, all of which were recently tested by the British National Archives and found to still contain dangerous levels of arsenic.
“In the absence of government intervention,” writes Hawksley, “the people of Britain had used the power of their pocketbooks to make the presence of arsenic in wallpapers obsolete. And as a result, their homes no longer held a fatal secret.”