The Historic Menace in the Home
Manufacturers INCLUDED arsenic in Many household Products Until the Late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
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.
WAR OF THE WALLPAPER
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.”
LACK OF ACTION
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; thamesandhudsonusa.com.