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Bit­ten by Witch Fever: Wall­pa­per & Ar­senic in the Vic­to­rian Home Lucinda Hawk­sley (Thames and Hud­son and The Na­tional Archives, £28)

In 1775, a Swedish chemist, Carl Scheele, de­vel­oped a bril­liant yel­low­ish-green dye. Ad­mired for its depth of colour, ‘Scheele’s Green’ was quickly adopted by man­u­fac­tur­ers of paint and wall­pa­per. It had, how­ever, one major dis­ad­van­tage: de­rived from cop­per ar­sen­ite, it was highly poi­sonous.

As early as 1815, Ger­man chemists warned that wall­pa­pers coloured with Scheele’s Green could, un­der damp con­di­tions, re­lease ar­seni­cal gas, which (we now un­der­stand) is car­cino­genic as well as toxic. It took many years for this to be widely ap­pre­ci­ated and so for the first half of the 19th cen­tury, many do­mes­tic in­te­ri­ors were dec­o­rated with pa­pers coloured with a po­ten­tially lethal dye that was also used—even more wor­ry­ingly—as a food colourant, no­tably in green blanc­mange.

This even­tu­ally pro­voked an ‘ar­senic panic’ in mid-vic­to­rian Eng­land, which peaked in 1879 when it was dis­cov­ered that lick­able postage stamps were coloured with ar­seni­cal dyes (well af­ter Scheele’s Green had been aban­doned by most paint and wall­pa­per man­u­fac­tur­ers). Fear was whipped up by ar­senic’s pop­u­lar­ity with mur­der­ers— taste­less and colour­less, it was a very use­ful poi­son.

His­to­ri­ans have been in­trigued for some time by the story of ar­seni­cal wall­pa­pers, which fea­tured promi­nently three years ago in a BBC se­ries Hid­den Killers of the Vic­to­rian Home.

The de­gree to which they were, in fact, dan­ger­ous has been much dis­puted. Wil­liam Mor­ris—whose fam­ily wealth came from cop­per min­ing, a major source for ar­senic—thought the fears were greatly ex­ag­ger­ated. In 1885, years af­ter his firm had stopped us­ing ar­seni­cal dyes in its prod­ucts, he wrote: ‘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.’

This quo­ta­tion pro­vides a mem­o­rable ti­tle for Lucinda Hawk­sley’s book on ar­senic and Vic­to­rian wall­pa­per. It is a cu­ri­ous pro­duc­tion. Her short, sprightly but un­ref­er­enced text needed much tighter edit­ing—for example, she be­lieves that Punch car­toons were en­joyed by the il­lit­er­ate—and she pads her ma­te­rial out with non­sense, such as a pho­to­graph of Ed­ward VII in Marien­bad cap­tioned as the King find­ing ‘re­lief away from ar­seni­cal Bri­tish decor’.

‘Colour­less, ar­senic was a very use­ful poi­son

Her chap­ters al­ter­nate with im­ages of wall­pa­pers printed with ar­senic dyes, drawn from ex­am­ples in the na­tional Archives. The book is beau­ti­fully printed and pack­aged, so it’s a shame that its de­signer isn’t ac­knowl­edged. Michael Hall

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