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The deadly tale of arsenic wallpapers in the Victorian era

The currently on-trend brightly-coloured victorian wallpaper used to be a requisite to die for – literally.

Victorians used to be obsessed with this type of wallpaper, even though it meant that the children and the elderly died of arsenic poisoning because of it, as stated by the Smithsonian. However, the fact that arsenic was easily metabolized by adults meant that, for a long time, people would not accept that arsenic wallpaper was toxic.

Victorian wallpaper was characterized by vivid colours and floral designs and it could kill. However, it wasn’t unusual, according to The Atlantic. Arsenic was everywhere in that period – from food colouring to baby carriages. The glowingly coloured wallpapers were the heart of the controversy regarding what is safe to have in your home.

The colour green was the very root of the problem, according to Telegraph. Back then, a Swedish chemist named Carl Sheele used copper arsenite to create a bright green that was named after him. It quickly became popular with Pre-Raphaelite artists, home decorators and everyone from the emerging middle class upwards.

Art historian Lucinda Hawksley writes: “Before the craze for these colors had even reached Britain, the dangers associated with arsenical paints had been acknowledged in Europe, but these findings were largely ignored by British manufacturers.”

According to Smithsonian, a high-profile doctor named Thomas Orton nursed a family through a mysterious sickness that eventually killed all four of their children. Desperate to find a cause, he made notes about the family’s home, with all its contents. He didn’t find anything wrong with the water supply or with the home’s cleanliness. However, he was worried about their green-coloured wallpaper in the bedroom. This reminded him of the theory that wallpaper could kill, even though nobody was eating the arsenic-infused paper.

Lucinda Hawksey published a book that focuses on the presence of arsenic in Victorian era, called “Bitten By Witch Fever”. The title was a reference to something that William Morris, the center of the story, said. He was an artist and designer associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts interior design movement. He designed the most famous wallpaper of the century. He was also the son of the man who was the largest arsenic producer in the country. Morris didn’t believe that arsenic wallpaper could kill you, arguing that he had one in his home and him and his friends were fine. In a letter sent to his friend, Thomas Wardle, he wrote: “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to image: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever”.

Eventually, Morris succumbed to public pressure and stopped using arsenic in his wallpapers, like many other producers did. As the idea that arsenic wallpaper is deadly was popularized by newspapers, consumers began to turn away from the trend.

Daisy Wilder