The His­toric Men­ace in the Home

Man­u­fac­tur­ers IN­CLUDED arsenic in Many house­hold Prod­ucts Un­til the Late 19th and early 20th Cen­turies.

Victorian Homes - - Contents - BY MEGHAN SALGADO

Learn about the hid­den poi­son man­u­fac­tur­ers in­cluded in many Vic­to­rian house­hold prod­ucts.

Peo­ple fa­mously be­lieved arsenic was used in the as­sas­si­na­tion of Napoleon Bon­a­parte, who died on May 5, 1821.

Found in Vic­to­rian-era wall­pa­per, the un­de­tectable el­e­ment took lives through­out the 18th and 19th cen­turies. With im­proved tech­nol­ogy re­duc­ing the over­all cost of wall­pa­per, and the pop­u­lar, vi­brant green color that arsenic pro­duced, arsenic was present in most homes de­spite its ad­verse ef­fects on health. How did this hap­pen? In Bit­ten by Witch Fever, au­thor Lucinda Hawk­sley an­swers that ques­tion as she de­tails arsenic’s his­tory in Europe and its con­nec­tion to the 19th-cen­tury wall­pa­per in­dus­try.


Arsenic had a role in sev­eral dark sto­ry­lines prior to its use in wall­pa­per. Peo­ple fa­mously be­lieved arsenic was used in the as­sas­si­na­tion of Napoleon Bon­a­parte, who died on May 5, 1821. He died in a room cov­ered with or­nate gold and green wall­pa­per, the same green that came from arsenic. While it is un­clear ex­actly how he died, Hawk­sley re­marks that “ob­servers were re­port­edly shocked by just how well pre­served” Napoleon’s body was, fur­ther­ing ru­mors that his death was due to the poi­son.

The si­lent killer. In­her­i­tance power. Arsenic has in­her­ited sev­eral sin­is­ter names in the last few cen­turies.

Maria Swa­nen­berg, a Dutch woman, also used arsenic in a deadly man­ner, tak­ing the lives of rel­a­tives and friends by slip­ping arsenic into milk. Hawk­sley states, “Arsenic, easy to pur­chase and use but dif­fi­cult to trace, made it a pop­u­lar choice for those seek­ing to profit from the demise of a rel­a­tive or spouse.” Swa­nen­berg did this many times, and some es­ti­mate she took up to 102 lives. Her mo­tive for the killings was ob­vi­ous—she had taken out life in­sur­ance policies in their names be­fore be­gin­ning to poi­son them. Swa­nen­berg was able to carry out this plan for al­most thirty years, be­tween 1860 and 1890.

Arsenic doesn't just make ap­pear­ances in his­tory, but also in lit­er­a­ture. Pub­lished in 1892, The Yellow Wall­pa­per by Char­lotte Perkins Gil­man, tells the story of a woman trapped in her own home, forced to re­main in a wall­pa­pered room where she slowly goes mad. The novel al­ludes to the dam­ag­ing ef­fects of arsenic, while also ex­am­in­ing the sti­fling con­di­tions women of the time ex­pe­ri­enced. Works such as Gil­man’s fur­thered the con­nec­tion be­tween arsenic and the wall­pa­per in­dus­try.


No­to­ri­ous ad­ver­saries, England and France were equally com­pet­i­tive over who was the greater pro­ducer of wall­pa­per, though they ap­proached its pro­duc­tion in very different ways.

As England was in the midst of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, changes in tech­nol­ogy made wall­pa­per ac­ces­si­ble to the mid­dle class house­hold. In­stead of be­ing hand stamped and cut, rolling tech­nol­ogy, foot ped­als and steam pow­ered ma­chines made pro­duc­tion quick and in­ex­pen­sive. In England, pa­per taxes fell, mak­ing it even more af­ford­able. With greater ur­ban­iza­tion and af­flu­ence, demand was grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially through­out London and be­yond.

In France, the wall­pa­per mar­ket fo­cused on lux­ury, with de­signs of flo­ral mo­tifs and al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ures and scenes. Designers would also use tech­niques such as em­boss­ing and print­ing on fine linens to el­e­vate the sta­tus of their wall­pa­per. Hawk­sley de­scribes the French style as hav­ing “the air of high art about them.” Of­ten, French de­signs looked like a ta­pes­try had been ad­hered to the wall. Th­ese de­signs did not come cheap, but France was able to sus­tain its mar­ket with high prices and a healthy demand, as con­sumers thought the qual­ity higher than English op­tions.

“By the mid­dle of the nine­teenth cen­tury, arsenic could be found in a va­ri­ety of guises through­out the home.”

England did not take this ly­ing down. In 1862, there was a sig­nif­i­cant shift in the wall­pa­per in­dus­try from French dom­i­nance to English supremacy. At the In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion in London, English mak­ers took home a ma­jor­ity of the prizes, sig­ni­fy­ing a change in taste away from the ab­surd op­u­lence of French prod­ucts. As a fur­ther in­sult, English mak­ers also re­ceived many awards at the Ex­po­si­tion Uni­verselle, the French equiv­a­lent. Af­ter this show­ing, the ri­valry was largely dead, and in 1873, Hawk­sley states that “it was the mea­sure of grow­ing re­spectabil­ity and ad­mi­ra­tion that English wall­pa­pers could com­mand that they were shown at the Fine Arts Ex­hi­bi­tion at London’s Al­bert Hall for the first time.”


With England’s mas­tery of the wall­pa­per in­dus­try came stub­born­ness over ac­knowl­edg­ing arsenic’s harm­ful im­pacts. Ac­cord­ing to Hawk­sley, “By the mid­dle of the nine­teenth cen­tury, arsenic could be found in a va­ri­ety of guises through­out the home.”

The English used arsenic in a plethora of every­day prod­ucts, not just in wall­pa­per. Soaps, medicines and pes­ti­cides con­tained arsenic, but so did rat poi­son. It seems as­tound­ing that arsenic was present in all th­ese prod­ucts without any­one call­ing at­ten­tion to the con­tra­dic­tion. There were also sev­eral scan­dals in Europe when traces of arsenic were found in beer or on the back of postage stamps. How­ever, th­ese dis­cov­er­ies weren’t enough to in­spire change in reg­u­la­tions, de­spite sci­en­tific evidence that arsenic was di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for declines in health.

In 1885, an English oph­thalmic sur­geon, Jabez Hogg, pub­lished a re­port ti­tled “Arseni­cal Poi­son­ing by Wall-pa­pers and Other Man­u­fac­tured Ar­ti­cles.” He de­tailed how other coun­tries pro­hib­ited us­ing green pig­ments in

“Arsenic, easy to pur­chase and use but dif­fi­cult to trace, made it a pop­u­lar choice for those seek­ing to profit from the demise of a rel­a­tive or spouse.”

wall­pa­pers due to the like­li­hood of the dam­ag­ing prop­er­ties of arsenic. Out­side England’s borders, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cized English law­mak­ers af­ter they failed time and time again to in­tro­duce reg­u­la­tions of the sub­stance. Hawk­sley gives sev­eral ex­am­ples of leg­isla­tive ac­tions across Europe and says that “by the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tury most gov­ern­ments were aware of the ne­ces­sity to act.” Scientists in Ger­many, Swe­den, Denmark, Italy and even their ri­vals in France called upon the English to pro­tect their cit­i­zens from the dangers of arsenic.

His­to­ri­ans sus­pect it took the Bri­tish so long to make changes be­cause they wanted sales of Bri­tish man­u­fac­tured goods to flour­ish without the hin­drance of govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion. In the end, it was pub­lic demand that pushed man­u­fac­tur­ers to make their prod­ucts without arsenic, not any action by the Bri­tish govern­ment. De­spite the well-doc­u­mented im­pacts on its cit­i­zenry, the pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of the Bri­tish econ­omy over the Bri­tish peo­ple left the use of arsenic unchecked for far longer than nec­es­sary.

Bit­ten by Witch Fever by Lucinda Dick­ens Hawk­sley, pub­lished by Thames & Hud­son, © 2016; thame­sand­hud­

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