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