We are slaves to fashion – both in our wardrooms and in our homes. This also was the case during the Victorian era. Homes in the Victorian era often were covered in wallpaper. The Victorians loved wallpaper so much they covered every wall with it and sometimes the ceiling. The wallpaper of choice was that of bold colors with large patterns. But the fashion-forward got more than they bargained for – their poison wallpaper was killing them.
From the mid-19th century until the late 1920s, arsenic was found in a variety of products. People knew it was poisonous, but believed it had to be ingested to be harmful. Little did they realize products containing arsenic still could release the poison into the air.
Arsenic was used mostly in color pigments and was found in fabrics, household products, toys, baby carriages and numerous other items. The poison also was used in medical and beauty products such as eczema pills, sex enhancers, acne medications, shampoos and asthma cures. Finally, arsenic was found in rat poison, making it the most common way in the Victorian era to poison not just rats but your enemies.
Some poisonings were purposeful. Others accidental. The poison often was mistaken for flour or sugar, and thousands died annually of poisonings from arsenic accidentally added to desserts. This prompted Great Britain to pass a law in 1851 ruling poisonous powders must be colored black or blue to avoid accidental ingestion.
Arsenic began being used in wallpaper as early as 1771. Its addition made it possible for manufacturers to produce vibrant colors. Green was especially in demand. The color was called Scheele’s Green after Carl Scheele, the chemist who made the pigment, but it wasn’t the only green to contain arsenic.
William Morris, owner of Britain’s popular wallpaper manufacturer Morris & Co. and who inherited his fortune from an arsenic mine, was skeptical that products containing arsenic could be poisonous. Morris believed doctors who saw a connection between the products and patients’ ill health were victims of public hysteria.
“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 wall papers when they probably ought to put it down to the water closet, which I believe to be the source of all illness,” Morris wrote a friend.
The Link Between Poison Wallpaper and Public Health
The first reports of poisonings linked to wallpaper began in the 1850s and continued for decades.
“Among all classes, there is a very large amount of sickness and mortality attributable to chronic arsenical poisoning,” a Victorian medical expert said. “This may eventually prove to be the true cause of many of the mysterious diseases of the present day, which so continually baffle medical skill.”
Arsenic affects individuals differently depending on age and the level of protein in the their diets. This means some members of a household could be affected while others were not.
Dr. Thomas Orton was called to a home in London in 1862. The Turner family had had three children die over the course of six weeks, and their last child was extremely ill. The other children’s deaths were blamed on diphtheria, but no one else in the building had gotten sick.
Orton examined the family’s home. He couldn’t find anything wrong, but the family had recently installed new wallpaper. When the last child died, an autopsy confirmed arsenic poisoning. The case went to court but was dismissed, and child’s death was ruled natural.
“The mother declared that her children had always been healthy up to Christmas last; that ‘she had never had a doctor in the house’… till the children had measles followed by diphtheria, in January,” Orton wrote in a letter printed in the East London Observer after the court case.
After the wallpaper was hung, Orton said, it was only a short time before the entire family began to sicken.
Pocketbook vs. Public Health
Arsenic products were already banned in Europe. But in Great Britain wallpaper was a booming industry. In 1874 alone, 32 million rolls of wallpaper were manufactured.
Big business interests took precedence over public health, and arsenic in wallpaper was never outlawed. By the 1870s and 1880s, however, the public demanded arsenic free wallpaper, and companies bowed to public pressure.
In the 21st century, Victorian wallpaper kept at the British National Archives were tested for arsenic; 275 tested positive. They weren’t all green but featured a variety of colors.
Updated: 27 October 2020