Wednesday, 1 June 2011

"Breath of Death."

“A great deal of slow poisoning is going on in Great Britain.”
Dr William Hinds 1857

            In the 1850’s a change came over the nation. Oil lamps, with their brighter light, replaced candles as the main source of household illumination and so walls no longer needed to be pale reflective colours. Dark shades became fashionable and of these, the greatest demand was for Scheele’s Green and Schweinfurt Green. Anyone who considered themselves fashionable, had to have a ‘green room,’ and manufacturers estimated that in 1858 there were an estimated 100 million squares miles of green wallpaper in Britain alone. Unfortunately, what people failed to realize at the time was that their highly prized wallpaper was coloured with arsenic, and very likely to be poisoning them.

            The first hint of trouble was recorded in the Limehouse district of London, in 1862. First one child, then a second, and tragically a third from the same family, died with symptoms similar to diphtheria. However, after an inspection of their home by the Medical Health Officer, he was not convinced and made a special note of the green wallpaper in the children’s bedroom. After tests it became clear that the painful, constricted throats that ailed the children were not due to diphtheria at all, but arsenic found in the Scheele’s green wallpaper decorating their nursery.

            A correspondence on the subject of arsenical wallpapers took place in The Times newspaper. One respondent, signing himself ‘A. Sufferer’ wrote that when he told his decorator that he was distributing poison, the man then:
“…denied the possibility of ill resulting and offered to eat a pound of paper.”

            The wall paper manufacturers’ had much lose economically, and with a similar attitude to the tobacco manufacturers of the 1960’s, denied the evidence for harm, saying things such as:
“Look, I can rub it [wallpaper] hard, I can lick it [wallpaper] a dozen times with my hand and nothing comes off.”
Their defence was that good quality wallpapers didn’t shed arsenical dust and so could not poison people. It took until the 1890’s for science to show that arsenical vapour (not just solid arsenic) was deadly.

            As stories spread people became more suspicious of that their décor was making them ill. When one lady sickened, and her pet cat’s fur fell out, she swapped rooms with her maid and made a full recovery…whilst the maid took sick. To make matters worse, the Victorian remedy for illness was to be confined to a room and avoid cold air. This meant that people suffering with headaches, fatigue, chest complaints and nauseau (all symptoms of arsenical poisoning) were likely to take to their beds in a green bedroom with the windows tight shut against draughts and thus :
“Breath air loaded with the breathe of death.”

It didn’t take long for infamous green wallpaper to appear in fiction…as a murder weapon.



  1. Ah, so it was green wallpaper that was the problem. I knew that wallpaper was a problem, but now, thanks to you, I have another fact in my brain. We look back now on some of the things in that time that were thought of as good, but which turned out to be bad. And there was so much social pressure to do it "right". Green being right at the time. Sad. I'm glad we have learned a few things; wish we knew it all.

  2. Fascinating what went on in the past - I just knew there would be at least one story using it as a murder weapon! Look forward to reading more.

  3. You come up with the most interesting research. I knew about lead-based paint, but never knew about arsenic laced wallpaper!
    Thanks for sharing,

  4. Debbie: more about different colours of wallpaper in the next post....and indeed, Teresa, the Victorian environment was loaded with lead...danger all around.....
    Rosemary, so glad you enjoyed this post and hope to see you back on Sunday.
    Grace x


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