Death by Wallpaper: When Arsenic in the Walls Was Killing Children
Wallpaper isn’t as popular as it once was, and perhaps the reason for this falling out of fashion was its ability to kill!
In 1778, a Swedish Chemist named Carl Scheele created a brilliant green colored pigment called “Scheele’s Green,” which was composed of copper arsenite. This color was particularly popular among artists and home designers in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. As its name would suggest, copper arsenite contains the deadly element arsenic. Not all commercially available green paints contained arsenic, but many of the prominent ones did, such as Emerald Green, Paris Green, and Schweinfurt Green.
Can of deadly Paris Green pigment. CC BY-SA 3.0
An Invisible Killer
Although the dangers associated with ingesting arsenic were well known, the people of the 19 th century did not care when it came to the arsenic found covering their walls. In fact, it is possible that the people using the arsenic-laden wall coverings did not realize how deadly it was. Many families around this time grew mysteriously ill for no apparent reason. The water supplies were untainted, and the houses were clean, but there remained one common factor: the green wallpaper. While people knew that eating arsenic could kill you, they didn’t realize that merely being near it could cause people to get sick and die.
An Unpopular Diagnosis
In 1850, Dr. Letheby, a renowned chemist working at the London Hospital, confirmed that the cause of death for a girl was arsenic poisoning. The newspapers were quick to publicize the doctor’s theory: that the arsenic-filled paints used in the wallpaper covering the family home had killed a child. Letheby’s theory went further to claim that one did not need to eat the paint, nor even sleep in the same room as it, but it would only take a few hours of exposure to the paint within the wallpaper to kill a child.
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Henry Letheby diagnosed the problem but was ignored. (Public Doman)
However, this theory did not convince everyone. Letters appeared in local newspapers for nearly a decade claiming that the theory was impossible and that no one could be killed by wallpaper. Doctors Letheby and Thomas Orton lead the charge against the skeptics, responding to the letters with personal experiences of deaths caused by the arsenic-filled wallpaper. Dr. Thomas Orton recounted some of the cases of poisoning that he saw:
“I have known a family of children sickening for a while; they have been sent into the country and got well. They have been brought home again, and again taken ill. The paper has been removed, and the sickness has ceased. A few days ago, in my own neighborhood, a person, in cleaning her house, gently brushed over the green paper on the walls. In an hour or two she and her husband were seized with pains in the eyes and head, irritation about the upper lip and nostrils, and a sense of suffocation so that they could not sleep all night. With these warnings, the matter now rests with the public.”
William Hogarth's The Inspection, the third canvas in his Marriage à-la-mode (The Visit to the Quack Doctor). (Public Domain)
Resistance from Big Business
Due to the popularity of the color, the businesses were reluctant to give up such a large source of income. So, they continued to claim that there was nothing wrong with their product and it remained quite fashionable. However, in 1859 the first arsenic-free wallpaper in Britain was produced by William Woollams & Co. This was followed by the famous wallpaper company Morris & Co. ceding to public demand and producing their own arsenic-free green wallpaper.
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William Morris & Co., Wallpaper Sample. (Public Domain)
Many years later, William Morris, the company’s founder remained a skeptic of the charges laid against arsenical wallpaper. In 1885, he wrote to his friend Thomas Wardle:
“As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever. My belief about it all is that doctors find their patients ailing, don’t know what’s the matter with them, and in despair put it down to the wallpapers when they probably ought to put it down to the water closet, which I believe to be the source of all illness.”
Of course, this was met with further suspicion as Morris’ family wealth had come from copper mining, which is a primary source of arsenic.
Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman in “the Arsenic Waltz,” Etching (1862) (Image: Wellcome Library, London)
Arsenic Poisoning Proof
It is easy to understand the skepticism since many houses had this wallpaper and yet only some seemed to be affected. Of course, modern studies show that an identical level of arsenic poisoning can prove fatal to children, the sick or the elderly, and yet have barely any effect on a healthy adult. Studies have also shown that those with a higher level of protein in their diet were able to cope with a higher level of arsenic in their system.
Many healthy people increased their chances of poisoning as wallpaper and paint were not the only places that arsenic could be found in the Victorian era. Ladies applied arsenic-filled cosmetics while they wore arsenical green dresses and artificial wreaths in their hair. Men wore green waist-coats and neckties, all colored with arsenical dyes. Vegetables were sprayed with insecticides containing arsenic and meat was dipped in arsenic to deter flies. Even lickable postage stamps were found to have arsenic in their green dyes. Finally, in 1903, a Royal Commission recommended safe levels of arsenic for food and drink, but no legislation was passed prohibiting the use of arsenical green in wallpaper. Reportedly, it wasn’t until 1879 that Queen Victoria had all of the green wallpaper torn out of Buckingham Palace after a visiting dignitary became ill.
But, as the garish green fell out of favor in the fashion world, so too did the arsenic. Today, it is highly unlikely that one would find this type of green wallpaper in their home. Even in historic homes, the poisonous wall coverings have been removed for the safety of the public.
What mysteries are hiding in your walls? And are they trying to kill you?
Top image: Henry Wallis – Poet Thomas Chatterton’s death by arsenic. Source: Public Domain
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Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/victorian-wallpaper-got-its-gaudy-colors-poison-180962709/
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