Monday, October 2, 2023

Lethal Leaves: Arsenic Greens

 By Monica Groth, Curator 

Green Bonnet, c. 1880
This bonnet may be colored with arsenic green pigments

In 1775, the young chemist Wilhelm Scheele discovered that copper arsenate (a copper and arsenic compound) made a gorgeously vivid green color. By mixing sodium carbonate, arsenious oxide, and copper sulfate, he produced a vibrant pigment. Immediately desired by customers and cheap to make from mining wastes readily available as the Industrial Revolution took off, Scheele’s Green was adopted by many manufacturers. The compound was used to color wallpaper, book covers, playing cards, and candy wrappers. As the 19th century began, other green pigments with slightly different chemical compositions including Schweinfurt Green and Paris Green also appeared. The beautiful green was attractive –and deadly.  

Arsenic is very poisonous to humans. Early in the Victorian period (1837-1900) it gained a reputation as the poison of choice for murderers and the poison to avoid if you wished to commit suicide (it caused that agonizing of a death). But many arsenic victims weren’t poisoned by another person. Instead, they were unsuspecting consumers – victims of fashion.

Perhaps the most famous case of arsenical green pigments involves Paris Green wallpaper. Glue, damp, and mold would react with the wallpaper, which in addition to flaking off arsenic paint, would off-gas hydrogen cyanide into homes. Multiple people, Napoleon Bonaparte likely among them, died from such poisoning, and Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s popular book The Yellow Wallpaper (arsenical greens were often a lime-ish yellow/green color) was likely inspired by these facts.

However, before doing further research on the topic I was unfamiliar with the knowledge that clothing was also colored with arsenical green pigments and gave off substantial clouds of the lethal stuff. In particular, women’s gowns, hats, and leafy headdresses were dangerous to make and wear. Investigating doctors concluded that a ball gown fashioned from 20 yrds of green fabric might contain 900 grains of arsenic, and that in an evening of dancing, 60 grains might slough off as the wearer spun. With 5 grains enough to kill a person, such a woman, deemed a “killing creature” by the British Medical Journal (this was slang for an attractive woman at that time), could take out a dozen people in one night!

Green Silk Bodice, c. 1832
 Possibly colored with Scheele's Green arsenic pigment

It wasn't often that a beauty left 12 dead in her wake because the full lethal dose of 5 grains would rarely reach a person after one encounter. However, prolonged exposure to the chemical was a death sentence. Workers in factories and shops were very susceptible, developing physical and neurological maladies from constant contact with arsenical dust. The death of artificial flower maker Matilda Scheurer was much publicized in London in 1861. Scheurer, who was only 19 yrs old at the time of her death, dusted artificial flowers with arsenical green powder, daily breathing in the toxic dust and often returning home with it on her hands and clothing. One of the things which makes the pigment so perilous is how loosely its bound to its substrate - it was dusted on and could easily dust off. In addition to painful convulsions, tremors, and vomiting, the whites of Matilda’s eyes turned the verdant shade of Scheele's Green before her death. She reportedly told doctors that everything she saw looked green! Fellow flower workers developed scabs and lesions on their hands and faces, and workers in many different industries using arsenic sickened and died in the 19th century.

Orange Blossom Leafy Wreath, c. 1880:
Headdresses like this one often had leaves dusted with arsenic green pigments 

Word certainly spread that arsenic was present in green pigments and that it could kill. But the color remained fashionable through the decade. Artificial flowers or taxidermized birds (preserved with arsenic pesticide soaps) on hats and accessories were particularly in vogue. Today, I handle these items with caution to ensure no arsenic is inhaled or absorbed through the skin. 

By the 1880s, doctors, women’s groups, and reporters were lobbying for alternatives to arsenical greens. The use of the poisonous pigment slowly decreased, but arsenic was seen in a wide range of consumer products well into the 20th century. As you’ll learn if you visit our upcoming exhibition, Your Victorian House is Killing You, there were plenty of other dangers lurking in the 19th century home. 

1 comment:

  1. My Gereat Grandmother Lydia Wing Murphy Lived on Sullivan Steet ( not sure how long ) But she lived in Elmira all of her rmarried life and was a seamstress for ladies in Elmira. Seeing the ingredients ooften used in dressmaking I
    am wondering what she used!! Died in the early 1930's. She was actually interviewed at one time by the news paper