Arsenical Poisoning in 1876

From The Montreal Daily Witness, September 5, 1876.

By Methodist

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Mary Nazarene
Prof. S. A. Lattimore, of the University of Rochester, delivered a valuable lecture on “Arsenic in the Arts as a cause of Arsenical Poisoning,” before the Medical Association of Central New York at its meeting in Rochester, May 16th. It is full of facts of moment to every household and every person, and deserves the widest circulation that can be given it.

We extract from it several statements of the most immediate practical importance to our readers:

“Until recently the chief use of arsenic has been for the manufacture of colors. Combined with sulphur, it yields two sulphides—yellow arsenic or orpiment, and red arsenic or realgar. The splendid emerald green color produced by combining arsenic with copper, or the acetate of copper, on account of its unparalleled brillancy, and its permanency, has won its way to popular favor, despite its poisonous character. The arsenic of copper, or Scheele’s green, contains 55 per cent. of white arsenic and the aceto-arsenite, or Schweinfurt green, 58 per cent. The latter color is also known in commerce by a bewildering number of aliases, such as imperial green, emerald green, mineral green, Brunswick green, Vienna green, Vert de Montague, &c. A painter recently told me that he did not use emerald green because it was poison, but he used in its place Vert de Montague. He was deceived by a name.

Artichoke wallpaper Morris and Co J H Dearle no borders“On account of the insolubility of these arsenical pigments in any fluid which does not decompose them, they cannot be employed as dyes. Their use is therefore limited to cases where they can either be fixed upon the fabric or incorporated into its substance during the process of manufacture. They are also used both as oil and water colors.

“A cake of Windsor and Newton’s emerald green water color, which I recently had occasion to analyze, contained nearly 40 per cent of arsenic—enough to kill ten people.
Dress (AM 2003.48.1-12)
“In the dress goods known as green tarlatan, the color is emerald green, simply fixed upon the fabric with starch or size. Bright green artificial flowers are colored in the same manner. In decorative and wall papers, and cardboard, the color is spread on one side of the paper, the surface being left dull or glazed as may be desired.

“In writing paper the color is mixed with the pulp and thus is incorporated into the texture. In such paper the vivid green is usually toned down by some white powder to a pale sea -green.

“The aniline colors are obtained indirectly from coal tar, but directly from ‘aniline oil,’ by treating it with certain re-agents. The majority of manufacturers prefer arsenic, notwithstanding the danger of poisoning to which the workmen are exposed and the difficulty of disposing of large volumes of poisonous residues. In some manufactories in Europe one hundred tons of arsenic are thus consumed in a single year. The beautiful color fuchsin, when made according to the French mode, is said always to contain arsenic, and since this color is the basis of nearly all other aniline colors, it is readily seen that at least a large number are liable to be poisonous. Yet we wear it in our apparel, we eat it in sweetmeats, we drink it in syrup, we write with it as ink.

Bristol Museum taxidermy collection“In calico printing, of late, arseniate of alumina has been extensively substituted for albumen, and arsenic acid for the more costly tartaric acid. A crude arsenical ore, or ‘black arsenic,’ is, often sold as ‘fly powder,’ or even ‘cobalt,’ and used in the household for destroying flies. Lead shot contains arsenic, which is added to improve the spherical shape. In pyrotechny red arsenic is used in Indian fire or Bengal white fire. The  transparency of glass is improved by adding a little arsenic. An arsenical soap is used by taxidermists to preserve the skins of stuffed animals. Hence you often leave a museum with a headache— slightly poisoned. A mixture of lime and yellow arsenic is used in dressing skins to remove the hair or wool. Shepherds use an arsenical mixture sometimes for ‘dipping’ sheep. Yellow arsenic is used in India in preparing shellac for the market. Both the yellow and green pigments are used —less commonly than formerly—in coloring children’s toys and candies. In solutions for bronzing, workmen often employ arsenic, from which they suffer greatly. Candles are often coloured green or yellow by arsenical pigment, and sometimes the wicks are saturated with arsenic to improve the brilliancy of the light.

Paris Green (Schweinfurter Grün)“In the late war with insect invaders, farmers have sought in a variety of poisons a means of protection. White arsenic has been used to a limited extent, but a wholesome fear of its deadly character has checked its popularity. The most successful competitor for popular favor has been Paris green, which is only another alias for the aceto-arsenite of copper, or the emerald green of the painter. If pure, Paris green should contain 53 per cent of its weight of white arsenic, but it is usually liberally dilated with sulphate of baryta. The samples which I have had occasion to analyze have contained from 11 to 27 per cent, of this heavy, harmless make-weight.

Accidents caused by the use of green arsenic, 1859 Wellcome L0075300The quantity of this poisonous powder used in the Western States is enormous. More than a ton has been sold in a single small village in a year. Numerous instances of more or less serious poisoning by Paris green, from inhalation of the dust and from cutaneous absorption, especially where there has been abrasion of the skin, have been reported.

“The compounds of this element are marked by two singular characteristics. Most arsenical compounds, excepting those of the alkalies, are insoluble, and yet they react at once, and powerfully, whenever applied to the mucous membranes or introduced into the blood. They rapidly pervade the system, soon appearing in the liver, in the renal excretions, and pervading the nervous matter and even the brain. In other cases, long after the tissues have suffered decomposition, the bones have yielded up their testimony, under the inquisition of chemistry, in the shape of absorbed arsenic.”

Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862. Wellcome V0042226 (crop and cleaned up)COMMENTARY:

Arsenic! Although the majority of green dresses from the 19th century are not arsenical, the idea of arsenic silks poisoning their wearers has captured public imagination. In reality, many surviving green silks are not arsenical – because the arsenic green pigments need to be painted onto the fabric, as on wallpaper or paper leaves for wreaths. This is made pretty clear in the text of the article, which describes how arsenic green tartalan (or tartalon – a thin, stiffened muslin) needs starch or sizing to adhere the pigment to the fabric. However – green-printed or painted goods, particularly where the green was vivid or metallic, would offer definite cause for concern. As with any artefact, Handle With Care.

One of the most interesting things to come to light while doing some quick research around this? Discovering that Socialist darling and traditional crafts hero, William Morris, who boasted about the value of natural pigments and traditional workmanship, was an arsenic conspiracy theorist who, as late as 1885, was dismissing doctors warning against arsenical wallpapers as “bitten by witch fever” – while having produced wallpapers with arsenic green pigments. Morris was also a shareholder and sometime director of his father’s mining company Devon Great Consols (DGC) – the largest producer of arsenic at that time, causing massive environmental damage and killing many workers. For further information, here is Andy Meharg’s article on the subject.

I recommend Alison Matthews David’s fantastic book, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, for a decent introduction to the subject and other aspects of dangerous fashion.


  • The first image is of Elizabeth Siddal as Mary Nazarene by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted in 1857 – using various shades of green watercolour, probably including a few arsenic-laden greens! Collection of Tate Britain.
  • The wallpaper design is by William Morris.
  • The detail of a 1860s evening dress (which may or may not be arsenical green – it is certainly a very intense green) is from Auckland Museum
  • The view of taxidermy is from Bristol Museum.
  • The rusty jar of Paris-green poison, of unknown date, is clearly marked as toxic and poisonous.
  • The jolly 1859 lithograph, showing “accidents caused by the use of green arsenic dyes”, is attributed to P. Lackerbauer and was published in Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale, a French public-health periodical. Image created by the Wellcome Institute.
  • The “Arsenic Waltz” caricature of the skeletal couple comes from Punch, 8 February 1862, and is satirically dedicated to “Green Wreath and Dress-Mongers.”

All images are hosted on Wikimedia Commons.


Success Through Dress: Queens and Politicians (1925)

From Success Through Dress, by the Hon. Mrs. C. W. Forester (formerly Mrs. Eric Pritchard). Duckworth, London, 1925. Chapter: Clothes and Chances, pp.16-18.

‘There is much nauseating rubbish written about woman. The mystic quality of the Feminine is too subtle for the male scribe. It remains for a woman to do justice to women – come to their help – and not to revile. In the last century people still clung to the illusion that she who understood the beauty of clothes and the cult of beauty must necessarily be vain and soulless. Time and intelligence have appreciably altered such a ludicrous attitude, but there still lurk certain venomous types who denounce luxuriance of beauty as immoral, and the last hat from Paris as a veritable temptation from Satan, or at least a pandering to foolish feminine vanity!

Mary Queen of Scots by Nicholas Hilliard 1578   MarieAntoinette1788 (cropped)  Madame du barry

‘It is futile to minimise the vital importance of dress in shaping the lives of women. Clothes do count – they count enormously, and always have done so. Through the mists of romance and tragedy the ill-fated Mary Stuart gazes down the centuries from under the pointed coif forever associated with her name. Mentions of Marie Antoinette conjure up visions of the unending grace of the fichu she made famous. Madame Du Barri (sic) stands sponsor to the lovely shade of rose that immortalises her memory. So much for the picturesque past; in the keener, harder life of to-day, where woman is called upon to struggle with man for economic independence, dress, paradoxically enough, is of greater account than ever. It is extraordinary how the blind prejudices and the very real fear of the ordinary, intelligent man confronted with the new feminine competition, fade away when the immediate object of those suspicions and misgivings happens to be well and tastefully gowned. Confidence is restored by the well-hung skirt, the hat that looks right, the silken ankle and shapely shoe.
‘For many forlorn years the cause of women’s political enfranchisement languished in the hands of brainy and devoted but short-sighted women, who saw in the adoption of fearsome mannish clothes a declaration of their efficiency as citizens. Only when a new school of womanhood frankly recognised that becoming clothes were not the least of women’s rights was success attained.

‘”Our splendid women,” said the statesmen when they saw battalions of women go forth in their trim, neat and infinitely attractive war-work uniforms. Patriotism, devotion and sacrifice are magnificent qualities in themselves, but one wonders, would they have met with such unanimous and generous tribute in less appropriate setting? Was it not another case of Success Through Dress?

‘And who can doubt for one moment that the way of other women Members of Parliament would have been harder, but for the excellent discretion in dress exercised by the first woman M.P’s, who wisely gave time and thought to consideration of the studiously simple, but most becoming and appropriate toilettes in which their first appearances at the House of Commons were made? The everyday man saw in this discriminating choice of clothes that appealed to the eye, and that avoided ostentation on the one hand, and the impression that clothes did not matter on the other, the outward sign of inward balance, judgment, and very proper feminine appreciation of beauty and appropriateness.’

Margaret Wintringham 1921 Margaret Bondfield 1919 Dorothy-Jewson Ellen Cicely Wilkinson Lady Astor

I recently bought a copy of Success Through Dress after discovering that the author – Mrs C. W. Forester – was no less than a remarried Mrs. Eric Pritchard, who wrote The Cult of Chiffon. A while ago, I posted a 1902 review of Cult with some commentary on Marian Pritchard, so I’m currently enjoying reading Marian’s thoughts 23 years later on the same subject. Much as we try to insist clothes don’t matter – they still do, perhaps more so than they did in the early 1920s, when most of our highest-profile British and American women politicians seem to be immediately defined (and critiqued) by how they dress – be it trouser-suits, leopard-spot pumps, or pussy bows and handbags, rather than by their varying levels of competence, as most male politicians are.

Mrs Eric PritchardAs  I mentioned in the commentary on the 1902 review, Marian Pritchard Forester has been accused of some pretty unappealing things, not least using the language of “cultural terrorism,” of hatred of athletic women, and of unreservedly condemning practical clothing. However, such claims do not seem to sync smoothly with her praise of women politicians, of war work uniforms, and of finding enjoyment in the art of dressing to present who you are, and who you want to be – solid advice that still sounds somewhat relevant today when self-presentation is still such an important part of society and finding your niche.

It’s an interesting note that many of the leading Suffragettes, while fighting for the Vote for Women, also emphasised how important it was to dress attractively, and ensure that if a woman had to argue for the right to vote, she should be nicely dressed in order to underscore how she was a woman first in order to make it difficult for men to de-sex and dehumanise her. A couple of relevant articles, one by Cally Blackman for Stylist, and another by Beatrice Behlen for the Museum of London, help place Marian Pritchard Forester’s outspoken celebration of femininity and attractive dressing more in the context of her time.

Illustration Notes:

  • The first trio of paintings depicts Mary, Queen of Scots by Nicholas Hilliard, Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and Madame du Barry by Francois-Hubert Drouais. All three images would have been familiar iconography to Marian Forester and her readers in the early 20th century. The Hilliard miniature is housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Vigée-Lebrun is in the Museum of the History of France, Versailles; and the Drouais is in the Museo del Prado.
  • The solitary photograph shows three female War Office workers in their “trim, neat” uniforms: (from left to right) an outdoor messenger, an indoor messenger and a supervisor. Taken in December 1917, on the roof of the offices of the Department of Information, 8 Buckingham Gate, London. Archives of the Imperial War Museum.
  • The group of photographs depict some of the women who sat in Parliament between 1919 and 1925 and who Marian Forester would have been referring to. From left to right, they are:
    • Margaret Wintringham, 1921. (Liberal, sat 1921-24)
    • Margaret Bondfield, 1919 (Labour, sat 1923-24; 1926-31)
    • Dorothy Jewson, 1920s (Labour, sat 1923-24)
    • Ellen Wilkinson, 1924 (Labour, sat 1924-31; 1935-47)
    • Nancy, Lady Astor, 1935. (Conservative, sat 1919-45)
  • Due to the lack of appropriately representative images, Katharine Stewart-Murray (Scottish Unionist, sat 1923-38), Vera Terrington (Liberal, sat 1923-24), and Mabel Philipson (Conservative, sat 1923-29) are absent from this gallery, as is Constance Markievicz, the Sinn Féin polltician and first-elected woman MP, who held a seat between 1918-22 but never sat as a matter of Sinn Féin principle.)
  • As I could not find another image of Marian Pritchard as Mrs Forester, her 1902 photograph is reproduced here.

All images are hosted by Wikimedia Commons.

The Shirt-Waist Inspector

From Truth, p.3, issue 1592, July 3 1907. Published in London.

Annette Kellerman 1907
The “Shirt-Waist” Inspector
(Chicago’s Latest)

His Worship of Chicago, taking Mrs. Grundy’s view,
To the peek-a-boo waist blouse is an objector,
Because, he says, it shows too much a lady’s “neathies” to
The eyes of all the male-men who inspect her.

And so, before a draper this said article purveys,
The Mayor, of public morals he the rector,
Decrees it be submitted to the scrutinising gaze
Of a “shirt-waist” (so he calls the chap) “inspector.”

But if mere camisole or stays, seen open blouses through,
Of the morals of the male are an infecter,
Much more a naked bosom or a back exposed to view
Demands the stringent cares of some inspector.

So let our Mayor resolve the public’s morale to uphold
By methods more effective and directer –
Id est, appoint (that nakedness thereby may be controlled)
Not a shirt-waist, but a BALLROOM DRESS inspector.


Bernhardt, Sarah di Giovanni Boldini
Men trying to control women’s clothing – what’s new? This satirical little poem refers to the fashion in the early 20th-century for blouses and dresses made from lace, lawn and eyelet fabric, and the common complaint that they were obscene and indecent simply because you might get the tiniest glimpse of underwear or naked flesh through an eyelet.

So, who was this charming Mayor of Chicago who was proposing a man should be employed for the sole purpose of vetting every blouse for its potential to just conceivably expose a flea-bite of nudity? The more things change, the more they stay the same….  Busse2 At this point, the Mayor of Chicago was Republican Fred A. Busse, (left) who beat Democrat Edward F. Dunne in February 1907 and held the position until 1911. According to Wikipedia, Busse was corrupt, with close connections and alliances with many organised crime figures, and astonishingly, his tenure coincided with an increase in organised crime in Chicago. Furthermore, his picture was used for advertising purposes by some Chicago brothels. Busse dismissed demands for moral or political reform along with the hostility towards him, saying simply that he could be found hanging around certain streets or in J.C. Murphy’s saloon. Although forced to create a vice commission soon after election, its report did not emerge until Busse’s reelection bid failed in 1911 and he left office, dying three years later of heart disease in 1914.

As the anonymous poet notes at the end, women’s evening gowns were by far much more exposing and revealing. Of course, women who wore ball-gowns were also likely to be wealthy, upper-class and privileged – so this was an excuse to police the dress of ordinary women using trumped-up excuses of “morality” and “propriety.”

Incidentally, “Mrs Grundy” is not a real person, but an archetype of censorious authority who had her origins as an unseen character in a 1798 play by Thomas Morton. Grundyism became a popular 19th- and 20th-century term describing officious prudery and judgement.

  • The first photograph shows Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman in 1907, wearing a charming eyelet blouse of the type that would have been called a “peekaboo waist.” Almost every young, smart woman would have owned similar garments.
  • The portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, dated 1904, by Giovanni Boldini clearly shows the magnificent effect of a beautiful long neck, full bosom, and well-shaped shoulders in a fashionably decollete ballgown.
  • The unprepossessing man is, of course, Fred Busse, Republican Mayor of Chicago, who had a problem with girls’ blouses, but apparently not with corruption, being easily found in saloons, or being the poster boy of a brothel.

All images hosted by Wikimedia Commons.

Easter Bonnets and Hatpin Weapons

From The Lakeland Ledger, Florida, May 26, 1988

Hats used to be part of a woman’s wardrobe
Carl Allen
Sitting in a church nowadays, old-timers like me can’t help but notice that none of the women seem to wear hats anymore. Back when I was growing up, a woman just didn’t go to church without wearing a hat. I can remember when most all the older women would pull back their hair in what they used to call the pull back roll. There would be a roll of their hair on the back of their heads which they would pin up with either wire or celluloid hair pins. Then they would add a hat that was specially designed to fit over that roll of hair. Almost every woman back then owned an Easter hat: some of the older women would even wear an Easter bonnet.

It wasn’t long before bobby pins replaced the old-fashioned wire and celluloid hair pins. Sometime later came beauty parlors, where women could go and have their hair done up in different styles. Those bobby pins allowed women to wear a hat without destroying their new hairdo.

I know for a fact that no man wanted to try and attack a lady that had on a hat held on with one of those long hat pins. For she could get that hat pin out quickly and do him some kind of harm.

Women used those long steel pins to stick through the hat and into the hair so their hats wouldn’t blow away. Of course, women also knew those pins made a pretty good weapon to use to protect themselves.
Once when I was walking home with Mom, she heard a noise in a bunch of guava trees that grew near the path. She stopped and took her hatpin out of her hat, handing me the hat to hold. She told me that if someone tried to grab us, I should high-tail it on home and she would work that gentleman over with her hatpin. While we were talking, an old cow walked out of the guava bushes. Mom was standing there with her hatpin drawn back until the cow mooed and walked on off. By that time I was already about halfway home. I sure didn’t want to see Mom injure a feller with that hatpin, as I had heard many stories about those hatpins in the hands of a mad woman.

The rest of the article can be read here

Colleen Moore
Carl Allen’s description of his mother, Annalou Allen, being fully prepared to use her hat-pin as a weapon to defend herself and her child in the early-mid-1920s is the kind of anecdotal memory that brings the past to life. It is also an interesting note on the slowness of fashion – at a time when fashion would have been dictating shorter haircuts and increasingly closer-fitting, head-hugging hats such as the cloche which didn’t require pins to secure them, style was clearly evolving more slowly away from the metropolises. It’s also fascinating to read a contemporary account about how even at the time, people understood the danger of hat-pins, and how this made women armed and dangerous in the wrong hands. There’s a great article about how the hatpin protected women from assault at a time of increasing female emancipation written by Karen Abbott for the Smithsonian Magazine – click to read more. As Allen’s story shows, the need for means of self-defense was just as relevant and accessible to Annalou in small-town Florida as it was to the women asserting their independence in cities and towns.

Further information on Carl Anderson Allen (1918-1996), who grew up and lived in Auburndale, Florida, may be found here.

Illustration Note:

  • The 1923 photograph of “Maisie” shows a hat of the type that Allen is probably recollecting, with the wearer’s hair rolled up and worn in a roll which supports the back of the hat.
  • The photographs showing how an attacked woman could defend herself with her hatpin were originally published in the San Francisco Sunday Call in 1904.
  • The fashionable film actress Colleen Moore is photographed in 1920 wearing a beautiful pleated silk hat held on in front with an impressive hat-pin. Image from Bain News Service.

All images are hosted by Wikimedia Commons.

45 Seconds to Tragedy: Flammable Fashion

From The Glasgow Herald, January 15 1984, page 4.

By Ann Shaw.

Kalamkari Phool dressJust one spark can turn these Asian dresses into blazing pyres. But why was there no early warning?

Do you fancy going up in flames? This is what happened when we put a match to one of the currently fashionable Asian cotton dresses available in Scottish boutiques. At £25 it is well-priced, good to look at – but within 20 seconds it could turn you into a towering inferno. In our experiment, there was nothing left after 45 seconds but a few shreds. If you didn’t know you owned such a potential killer, it is not surprising. No legislation exists to warn people of the fire risks or prevent the sale of such garments.

Next month the Government’s Working Party on Flammability of Clothing will reconvene to discuss the matter. However, the Government has already been accused of dragging its feet over what is clearly an important public issue.

Concern about the flowing, flimsy dresses, mainly from Asia, has been growing for some time. It culminated last month with a question being asked in Parliament, by Alan Williams, MP for Swansea West.

He was told that accidents involving Asian dresses had been reported to the Department of Trade. The first noted complaint was last June. No deaths have been reported so far, only various serious degrees of burning.

When the Working Party does meet, however, Asian dresses will be high on the agenda. It is also expected to produce a consultative document on ways of modernising present regulations for testing materials.

It is significant that Consumer Minister Sally Oppenheim issued the first Government warning last week.

She called it a “pre-warning.” because the Department of Trade had been able to gather evidence of only seven accidents. She said she had no intention of banning the dresses.

The victims had been severely burned, and in come cases scarred after loose dresses and sleeves had been set alight by a discarded match; a candle flame; a gas cooker; by cigarette ash; a cigarette caught in a hem, and when a child stood in front of a fire.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade said: “A number of tragic accidents have happened involving women wearing Asian cotton dresses.

“As a result the Government is carrying out its own tests to see what course of action might be appropriate. It is too soon to talk of banning them. We are looking at what is feasible and practical in this situation.

It is possible that because of the structure of these dresses, and in view of their popularity, it may be necessary to order labelling warning that they are a fire hazard.

The fire hazards inherent in modern clothing have long been known both to the trade and to Government, but there has been a certain reluctance to act because of the technical problems involved. However, as a result of public pressure several years ago, strict legislation now governs children’s nightwear.

The main difficulty faced by the manufacturing industry is that if you eliminate the fire hazard from clothing, you eliminate to varying degrees the quality of garments too.

Dr Frank Holmes of the Shirley Institute (formerly the Cotton and Man-made Fibre Research Association) says, “If you extend the present legislation on children’s nightwear to day dresses, it could result in a shortage of clothes in the shops. The Working Party on Flammability of Clothing is well aware of the dangers but has so far stopped short of issuing regulations to govern day dresses because of the market demand.

Dr Holmes advises any woman owning one of these cotton voile dresses “Wear it with extreme caution – or throw it away.”

The long-term solution is for research to come up with an acceptable flame retardant for all garments. Meanwhile, there is an urgent need for the Government to take measures to alert people to the very real fire risk from certain fibres, particularity lightweight cottons, The furore over Asian dresses looks like providing the necessary incentive to prompt action but for the women who have already been burned the measures will be too late.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Association has called for a warning to be put on all loose-weave Asian dresses explaining that they are a potential fire hazard. A spokeswoman for the Association said “We understand that some outlets have already withdrawn them from sale and it would be responsible on the part of others who still wish to sell them to issue a warning with the garment.”


Kalamkari Phool dress detailThe entire article, including a couple of supporting sub-articles can be read here.

It’s quite a jump forward from  the gossamer chiffons of 1902 to the cotton gauzes of the 1970s and 80s, but last year, I published Fashion in the 1970s and among the subjects I dealt with was imported fashion, particularly noting the immense popularity of imported Indian and Pakistani cotton dresses such as those described in this article. These soft, billowing gauze and voile dresses, often block-printed using a traditional kalamkari technique, were made and imported in vast numbers.

In the accompanying articles to this, we read that the Oasis Trading Company was one of the leading importers of such dresses to the UK, and that they temporarily withdrew them from sale until warning labels could be attached. Debenhams had already ordered that their dresses be clearly labelled as a fire hazard, although Top Shop said they would carry on selling them, adding “We believe that they are no more of a fire hazard than other clothes already being sold. However, if any of our customers are unhappy with their Asian dresses we will happily refund the money.”

The other sub-article has Dr. Holmes explaining that the flammability of the dresses “has nothing to do with their” Asian origin, but is instead to do with their extreme lightness and flowing style, as well as the flammable nature of loosely-woven cotton. Other similarly woven, light fabrics such as acetate, poly-cotton, rayon and linen would burn the same way.  Fire-proofing the fabric would make them harsh and unwearable, meaning they would not be easy to sell.

There are distinct parallels to be drawn between this article and the mid-19th century articles and news reports documenting crinoline fires. Also, anyone who can remember the 80s and early 90s will also be reminded strongly of shell-suits, a singularly repulsive yet phenomenally popular crinkly nylon garment which became popular in the later years of the decade, and turned out to be pretty flammable….


This article is freely available via Google Newspapers, and has been transcribed here for educational, non-profit purposes. Any inquiries about reproduction of any portion of the text or transcript for commercial purposes should be addressed to the staff of The Herald


The dress illustrated here is an original late 1970s Indian kalamkari cotton gauze dress in indigo and purple with gold stamping, imported to the United Kingdom by Phool (one of the best-known labels associated with these dresses). The photographs were taken by Sean Goddard. Another image of this dress is published in Fashion in the 1970s.  Images ©Sean Goddard/Daniel Milford-Cottam. All rights reserved.


Review: The Cult of Chiffon (1902)

From The Critic, Volume 41, pp.271-272, edited by Jeannette Leonard Gilder & Joseph Benson Gilder, Good Literature Publishing Company, 1902

There has been issued during the past month a volume which invites the scorn of the British matron, and many will therefore consider of great importance. The book is called “The Cult of Chiffon.” It has been written by Mrs. Eric Pritchard, and comes direct from the very depths of her soul. The book might have been called ‘The Importance of being Earnest about Chiffon.’ Mrs. Pritchard speaks with very faint praise of man’s power to criticise woman in matters of dress; but praise is here given to the woman who makes fashion beautiful and the beautiful the fashion. Man, it appears, had a good time long ago. In primeval times he adorned himself with fine feathers, and “even up to the last century he retained his partiality for gold stuff and gorgeous raiment.” But in more recent times civilized man seems to have lost pleasure in personal adornment, and to have become possessed of the desire to bestow all that is beautiful in “personal decoration upon his womankind.” This speaks well for man as an unselfish but the virtuous side of the man is not alluded to by Mrs. Pritchard. “The Cult Of Chiffon” has been fully illustrated by Rose Le Quesne, who has included in her adornment of its pages many valuable illustrations of how not to do it. Among these “the woman worker” is held up to pictorial scorn.

Mrs Eric Pritchard“Man,” says Mrs. Pritchard, “does not take kindly to the woman-worker.” In truth, he does not take to her at all. Man desires intelligence, but he hopes to find it clothed in becoming garments. The intelligent foreigner throws up his hands in horror at the ill-concealed proportions of the feet of the daughters of Albion, particularly those of the woman-worker. An Englishwoman wears boots only suitable to tramp an African desert. As for the Ibsen and other aggressive types of woman, their boots positively walk in front of them. You can see them a mile away. The feet of the Americans are “well shaped” and “slender,” but they are “mostly long.” But has not the chief poet of America asserted that “art is long?” The “elegance” of her feet pleases La Belle Américaine, and she is always looking at them, whereas Emerson bade her look up to the stars.

“The new religion,” says Mrs. Pritchard, “is smartness.” If you have learnt the secret of becoming smart you may possess power without beauty. In this connection observe the illustration of the lady on the cover of “The Cult of Chiffon.”

Mrs. Pritchard proceeds with sincerity and shrewdness to tell her readers how to become smart. Verily a good treatise upon the application of rouge may well be literature when a discourse upon woman’s enfranchisement may be mere pamphleteering. “The Cult Of Chiffon has this in common with the Christian religion: it insists that the invisible is more important than the visible.” Leaving out “the higher respectability,” woollen bodices, and the camisole of utility, can one wonder that marriage is so often a failure? However, it is permitted to the smart to wear silk and wool mixtures run through with ribbons. Mrs. Pritchard’s book is itself run through with ribbons; so we may consider this as one of the hall-marks of smartness.

Thomson's glove-fitting corset1900The woman who wears the wrong corset is almost as helpless as she who wears none at all. In matters of corsets the respectable British matron blocks the way. Mrs. Pritchard would stick pins into her. She believes in pins. A pin, she says, is “the needle of inspiration. and she might have added that the hair-pin is often the instrument of revelation. The “mother of many” insists that virtue alone is found in drab-colored merino and embroidery, and in that peculiar shade of gray “so popular with the well meaning.” The most approved style of corset suggests supple elegance.” It is illustrated on page 12. These may be had at a guinea (see advertisements at the end of Mrs. Pritchard’s volume). No woman should have less than three pairs of corsets in wear at once. No wonder the corset makers advertise in Mrs. Pritchard s volume. The perfect woman, it appears, has many sides and three pairs of corsets. She is of varying moods, but it doth not yet appear what she shall be. A great change has come over the world — the smart world in the matter of petticoats. although, alas, there are a few unconverted sinners who remain faithful to the flannel petticoat — a garment too much associated with parish needlework societies and the annual distribution to the poor at Christmas.

It is wrong to think that petticoats should rustle. If you hear a woman rustle you should shout for the police. A woman should not be “heard coming. ” Apparently, like little children, women should be seen but not heard. If you would be smart you must not rustle. Fortunately there are petticoats of aspirations. Modesty forbids these appearing in the advertisement pages of Mrs. Pritchard’s volume, but an illustration of “a petticoat of aspirations” may be seen hanging on a clothes-horse upon page 33.

Józef Mehoffer - Portret żony (W laurowej sali) 1909In matters of color we must in other than our spiritual moments turn towards the East. This is a year of purple and ruby, although the fat woman with a kindly feeling for color will no doubt be seen as usual in a flaming blouse and a loud skirt with horizontal lines. If, however, you are a nut-brown maid with a brilliant complexion, take brown unto your own. If by chance you are not a nut-brown maid you may become one. It is a matter of ingredients. With brown all things are possible. The lady on the cover knew what she was about with her hair. While on the subject of color art materials should be expensive. Those who study art in the abstract pay only 1s.11d. a yard. This is bad for business. Ten and sixpence is the smart price.

Mrs. Pritchard’s volume is filled with valuable hints. She advises the irreconcilables among her married friends not to shriek loudly with the company of disappointed spinsters, but rather to try the simple expedient of a ” much befrilled petticoat or some illusions in robes de nuit. Such illusions are kindly illustrated on page 21, where a young lady has to all appearances lost her way and is wandering about a country house with no other accompaniment than a lighted candlestick and a robe de nuit. The expedient has in this case failed. As to hats, Mrs. Pritchard sententiously remarks that the best hat of the moment comprises the efforts of the old masters and the new milliners.” This will explain to many seekers after truth, like myself, the reason why ladies’ hats are so expensive. “Buy with judgment and wear with intention” is another excellent maxim.

Mrs Pritchard has written a really clever manual for the world of women. The word ‘ chiffon,’ as interpreted by her, is a comprehensive term. She tells you everything as knowing her subject and her readers even better. Frequently she put herself into a devotional attitude towards the inventor of chiffons, whose name, however, is not mentioned. Our best English dictionary describes chiffon as ‘rags.’


Many years ago, as a MA student at the Textiles Conservation Centre, I was lucky enough to spot an original copy of The Cult of Chiffon come up on eBay in the vintage clothing section – and luckier still to win it for less than a tenner. This incredibly rare 1902 book – thankfully recently republished in facsimile by Dover Books – has been regularly quoted, referenced, and criticised in dress history books almost since it was first published, and used to be one of those legendary texts every scholar knew about, but had never actually seen in the flesh. This is an even rarer contemporary review, that turned up while I was doing further research on her, and it is almost as good fun as the book itself is to read.

Although she has been accused (most notably by Lou Taylor in The Study of Dress History) of being snobbish, aggressively middle-class and using the language of “cultural terrorism,” I also have to observe that despite this Marian Pritchard was also particularly notable for her emphasis on femininity and owning one’s sexual agency and seductive power, especially in the wake of strict Victorian morality. Taylor accuses Pritchard of being anti-sportswomen and of trying to denigrate practical clothing, but I’m not so sure myself if that is strictly fair. Pritchard writes in praise of female intelligence, and also encourages women to value and esteem themselves, and to find ways of being smart and to make sure that they feel happy in themselves, and if that involves dressing themselves to feel beautiful, so be it. She was part of the circle of Daisy Greville, the Countess of Warwick (to whom The Cult of Chiffon is dedicated), which included the fashion designer Lucile and her sister, notorious author Elinor Glyn.

Pritchard, of course, does place heavy emphasis on being seen through the lenses of masculine approval, but given the time of her writing, it is quite refreshing that she also argues for finding pleasure in your clothing and enjoying your appearance, and unusually for an early fashion writer, she tells the reader NOT to follow fashion, but to treat it as a guidance rather than a prescription. Rather than prescribing luxury and endless consumerism, The Cult of Chiffon is also full of good solid advice to those on limited incomes, offering suggestions on where to spend money (if you can only afford one good dress, make sure it is well-fitting and black), and advising on how to maintain a smart wardrobe on limited resources. She also comes right out and says point blank that there is nothing wrong at all with appreciating beautiful underwear, and that every woman should have the right to attractive underclothing for the sake of her self-esteem.


* The photograph is, naturally, of Marian (Mrs. Eric Pritchard) and was published in The Lady’s Realm in 1902
* The 1900 illustration depicting “Thomson’s glove-fitting corset” was originally published in The Ledger Monthly
* Józef Mehoffer’s portrait of a beautiful “nut-brown lady” is from 1909, a little later than the 1902 text, but is such a beautiful symphony of browns that it fits. Portret żony (W laurowej sali), Silesian Museum.

All images are hosted by Wikimedia Commons.

Crinoline and Whales

From Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal, Volume 52, p.537-538. November 1858.

“As, (borrowing a mechanical simile) certain clocks with glass faces are cunningly devised to cheat an observer into the belief that hands move without the aid of spring or weight, actuated through clock-work to move them – so the mental clock-work of ideal association is far too much concealed now-a-days. It is a particular case of a very human quality, pride — the false pride of chafing under an obligation; even though it be to one’s own suggestive senses. When people are less chary of telling the world how they got at results, it will be all the better for the world. As long as the pernicious falsehood is implied of attributing to the creative faculty ideas which merely come by association, so long will there be a hindrance to the onward march of intellect in many a timid aspirant. It may abate somewhat of the majesty wherewith whales pourtray themselves to the imagination of certain people, as it may tend to lower the majesty of our own creative faculty in the estimation of others, if we honestly confess at this — the very outset of our narrative — that between the behemoths of ocean on the one part, and the idea which brought them into our head on the other part, the chasm, though seemingly immense, is spanned by that one step, which, Napoleon (him of the grey coat and cocked-hat, we mean) signalized by a proverb. Wandering down through Bond-street one day, we jostled against many a crinoline petticoat, and the crinoline petticoats suggested the topic of whales!

“Nothing like the material falsely called bone of the Balaena Mysticetus (Or true whalebone whale. All the genus Balaena yield whalebone; but the whalebone of the B. Mysticetus is longest, and therefore the most valuable.) for imparting that expansiveness so indispensable to the proper set of a lady’s crinoline. There were three formidable competitors when the fashion come into vogue in these latter days. Steel, vulcanized caoutchouc, and gutta percha they were. Vain illusions all: whalebone’s the thing! As to the first, steel is steel; and steel, if badly tempered (nay, sometimes be the temper ever so good), breaks short off, leaving a sharp cutting extremity. It is a matter concerning which reliable statistics are difficult to obtain; but we are given to understand that, certain lesions incidental to the rupture of steel-petticoat-springs, have thrown them into such evil repute, that, ere long they will be totally abandoned.

17 January 1857. Inflatable crinolines as seen in Punch“The idea of hollow, inflated, vulcanized hoops, was eminently ingenious; but their employment involves conditions so difficult to be commanded, that, no wonder, vulcanized india-rubber hoop-work soon went out. We would not by any inconsiderate criticism of ours knowingly abate one iota of the proper credit justly appertaining to the inventor of vulcanized rubber inflated hoops. It was an idea suggested by a master mind. In theory the notion is perfect ; but, alas! from theory to practice there is a bridge, and few there be who cross it. An application of the very same sort of evidence which has proved that out of no kind of wind-bag whatever, no matter how cunningly devised, can a practically good swimming life-preserver be made— seeing the chance of accidents from sunken rocks – might have awakened suspicion from the very first, that no system of inflated hoop-work: could be adopted as the basis of a lady’s expansive gear, without imminent peril from puncture and collapse— so long, at least, as pins are a sine qua non to the “ fixing” of a lady. Besides — sub rosa be it spoken, and sotto voce – vulcanized rubber has brimstone in its composition; and brimstone, when volatilized, comes reeking to the olfactory sense with evil associations!

Old Mrs Jamborough. Punch, 14 June 1862“In common with many others who take an interest in watching the application of means to important ends, we thought hopefully of gutta percha hoopwork once. There cannot be a greater mistake, though some mistakes may be attended with more important consequences. The quality which should dominate over all other qualities in ladies’ manufactured hoop-work, is elasticity. Gutta percha IS non-elastic: it won’t do. So long as a lady can move about on a field all her own – move without touching any body, or any thing – move in such wise that no body and no thing, animate or inanimate, shall touch her, gutta percha is available. But set the lady in a crowd though it be only for an instant, and she emerges the very instant after, a grotesque shrivelled-up-looking thing, as full of creases as a closed umbrella or a baked pippin. A certain expression, used by Horace in a figurative sense, we could apply to the lady, physically, after a trifling variation. ‘The gutta percha hoop-expanded belle is—

“Cere (a) in vitium flecti.”

“And having on more than one occasion felt it a part of our duty to call the attention of a fair sufferer to the existence of this state of bodily collapse, we can from personal experience testify that —

“Monitorbus asper (a)”

“is an expression applicable to each particular object of our attentions, in a purely Horatian sense. Depend upon it, there is nothing like whalebone, after all, for a lady’s expansion gear: so now about the whales.”

 The rest of the essay can be read in its entirety via Google Books here.


More crinolines! I am actually quite excited to have found this essay because in multiple sources you see references to inflatable rubber crinolines, but very little concrete evidence given to show that they genuinely existed. The only image shown is usually a copy of the 1858 Punch magazine caricature of a woman blowing into a rubber tube to inflate her crinoline, or drawings based on the caricature. Clearly, we cannot automatically presume that Punch cartoons in any way accurately reflect the reality of fashions of the day, although this particular cartoon does appear to credibly portray how a rubber crinoline might have been inflated – and this unfortunately anonymous essay confirms that they did exist. The detail about the unpleasant smell due to the vulcanizing process is particularly compelling. Although this essay does promote the use of whalebone, steel hoops became the clear overall winner in the crinoline stakes.

Previously, I blogged a 1857 Letter to the Editor about crinolines in this post with lots of great crinoline visuals.


Both cartoons were originally published in Punch, the first (with the inflatable crinoline) on 17 January 1858; the second (of the poor old lady with squashed hoops) on 14 June 1862; and are both hosted by Wikimedia Commons.