From The Montreal Daily Witness, September 5, 1876.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
The 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.”
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.