Deadly Victorian wallpapers

Vividly coloured wallpapers were the height of fashion for Victorians – and the cause of countless deaths. Brilliantly vivid shades of green were particularly popular among artists and designers and, in turn, green became a very fashionable colour in which to decorate the home or to dress oneself. Manufacturers estimated that in 1858 there were an estimated 100 million squares miles of green wallpaper in Britain alone[1].
[Les fleur du Mal - The flowers of Evil]
The problem was that these wallpapers contained copious amounts of toxic arsenic. Copper arsenite created a vivid green pigment. After 1775, the richness of the colour and its superb pigmentation properties made Scheele’s Green (after its inventor, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele) highly sought after by paint manufacturers and interior decorators. Later, Emerald Green, Paris Green and Schweinfurt Green followed, but these were equally toxic.

Even before the craze for these colours had reached Britain, the dangers associated with arsenical paints was known in continental Europe, but this fact was conveniently ignored by British manufacturers. Wallpaper companies found their businesses thriving and they were rather reluctant to step away from the brilliant colours that could only be achieved using arsenic.

Although the very first arsenic-free wallpaper in Britain was produced in 1859, it was not until the 1870s that Morris & Co, then the most famous wallpaper company, finally bent to increasing public pressure and began producing their own arsenic-free paper.

But many a doctor remained sceptical, having frequently treated patients whose family members remained healthy, even though they shared the same wallpapered rooms as the sick. It was not yet widely recognised that an identical exposure to arsenic in any given group might not have the same effect on each person in that group. Identical levels of arsenic poisoning can prove fatal to children, the infirm or the elderly, yet have barely any effect on a healthy adult. Studies would also show that those with a higher level of protein in their diet were able to cope with higher levels of arsenic in their system[2].
To make matters worse, the Victorian remedy for illness was to be confined to your bedroom and avoid cold air. This meant that people suffering with headaches, fatigue, abdominal pains, vomiting and peripheral neuropathy – all symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning – were likely to take to their beds in a green bedroom with the windows tightly shut against draughts.

Scientific research carried out by the National Archives has since proved that, contrary to the popular belief of the time, it wasn’t only the green colourings that contained the insidious poison, but also in blue, pink, yellow, brown, gray and white.

[1] Haslam: Deadly décor: a short history of arsenic poisoning in the nineteenth century in Res Medica – 2013. See here.
[2] Vater: Interactions between Arsenic-Induced Toxicity and Nutrition in Early Life in Journal of Nutrition - 2007. See here.

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