06 July 2015

Toxins in 19th-century clothing - updated

This dress came with both a low‐cut bodice for evening wear and a more buttoned‐up bodice for daytime wear. Many Victorian dresses, including this one, were made with both styles of top and the advantage of “Emerald Green” was that it kept its bright colour in both natural and gas lighting. Collection of Glennis Murphy. Photo credit: Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada

An exhibition at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum draws attention to the health hazards of 19th-century clothing.
Before inventor Carl Wilhelm Scheele came along near the end of the 18th century, there was no colorfast green, only the option to do a blue overlay with yellow or vice versa. By mixing arsenic and copper, Scheele developed a pigment that would hold, whether in wallpaper, paintings, or clothing. It also happened to look fantastic under natural and new gas light, an important duality for the time. By the mid-19th century, when, as Matthews David notes “nature was disappearing from the environment,” this “Emerald Green” was incredibly popular in artificial flowers. It was also highly toxic, even deadly, and it’s no coincidence that Baudelaire titled his book of tormented poems Les Fleurs du Mal — The Flowers of Evil — just as the death of a young artificial florist was being investigated.
I presume the deadliness of the pigment derived primarily from its manufacture, not from wearing the clothing, as the embedded image of a lithograph of arsenic-damaged hands illustrates.

Addendum:  A tip of the blogging hat to reader BobTheScientist for providing reports that the arsenic in crafted materials can be volatilized as arsine.
In 1814 a new arsenic-based green pigment was discovered by two German chemists working in the town of Schweinfurt. This became known in England as emerald green, and for a time it was the finest green pigment known, rapidly displacing Scheele's green. Unfortunately, however, it was also poisonous, and if exposed to dampness it decomposed into arsine, a toxic gas.
I then remembered reading years ago a proposition that Napoleon had been poisoned by exposure to the arsenic in the wallpaper at his confinement.  Forensic study of his hair, however, has not confirmed that hypothesis; he did have high levels of arsenic in his body, but these were chronic, not pre-terminal, and his levels were comparable to those of others living in that era because of the uncontrolled medicinal and industrial use of the metal.

My wife also forwarded to me a 2010 post in Jane Austen's World entitled "Emerald Green or Paris Green, the Deadly Regency Pigment" -
Their product appealed to the Lancashire cotton industry which used the chemical in pigments and dyes. It was also used by other industries such as glass manufacture (as a decolouriser), in the production of lead-shot, leather tanning, soaps, lampshades, wallpaper manufacture (to create green and yellow print), pharmaceuticals, agriculture for sheep dips, children’s toys, candles, a highly effective rat poison, etc...

Emerald green was also used to color confectionary and cake decorations...

In 1861, Dr W. Fraser tested wallpaper that contained arsenic.  The threat, he said, came from breathing the dust of the papers, especially flocked wallpaper...
More at the link.


  1. Seems that wearing the clothing did have its effects: "19th century journals reported of children wasting away in bright green rooms, of ladies in green dresses swooning and newspaper printers being overcome by arsenic vapors." (Wikipedia)

    1. I remember the same having been suggested as contributing to the death of Napoleon -


      I probably should have included that when I wrote the post.

  2. I believe there was a _Doc Martin_ episode where an old lady was slowly being poisoned by the arsenic in her bedroom's ancient wallpaper.


  3. As Philip Ball explains on his blog
    http://tinyurl.com/jw47ku2 The making of Cézanne's palette
    and on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mnrNibjFrQ and probably in his book Bright Earth. Emerald green aka Paris green aka copper(II) acetate triarsenite is toxic because when damp it leaks arsine AsH3 into the air which is so toxic and volatile that it has been proposed a chemical warfare agent. It was modified into Lewisite aka β-chlorovinyldichloroarsine which was more stable and equally toxic. I don't think either was "used in anger".

    1. Thanks, Bob. I've inserted that link and the info into the body of the post itself.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...