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  • Anthony Lipmann

Arsenic and Old Wallpaper

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions are strictly his own.

If you happen to like your popular science with an elemental theme, ‘Bitten by Witch Fever’ written by Lucinda Hawksley, might be the book for the beach this summer.  It is her account of the 19th Century obsession with arsenic to fix colour in wall-paper, and how the popularity of its vibrant colours obscured its deadly nature.

Published by Thames & Hudson, the physical book is a beautiful object, with covers lavishly decorated in a wallpaper of arsenical green plant motifs. But even this design from 1877 contained the toxic secret that took almost a century of mysterious unattributable deaths from the beginning of the 19th century to eradicate.

I came across it in The Wellcome Foundation bookshop on the Marylebone Road, and it reminded me of the joy of browsing the real world of tangible books in bookshops. This is a book that you may truly judge by its cover, something that would not have come over online. Wallpapers of the Victorian era were lush to the point of garish and a host of them are interspersed through the volume like a wallpaper catalogue, each marked with various asterisks to denote the levels of arsenic later discovered in them through modern XRF analysis.

The Victorian urban middle classes wanted their interiors to look as if they had been painted by artisan crafts people and, for some, it proved to be their undoing. Mechanisation of presses meant that by 1879 in USA, 57 million rolls of wallpaper were produced in a year ‘sufficient to girdle the earth at the equator and leave several hundred yards to spare’ and almost all of them contained arsenic. These were floral motifs, scenes of Imperial India, plants of the tropics, Chinoiserie, landscapes, panoramas, avian scenes, architectural patterns and tromp l’oeil wood carvings that echoed Grindling Gibbons.

Hawksley is the great, great, great granddaughter of Charles Dickens and knows her Victoriana. What the Victorians chose to ignore for rather too long was not just the effect on households ignorant of the poison imported into their homes but the price that was being paid by the working people charged with producing it. Once it was discovered that arsenic ‘increased the brilliance and durability of pigments’, it was hard to resist making papers with printed colours that would be so vibrant.

Like the scandal of asbestos in the 20th century, Victorian factory bosses chose to deny that symptoms exhibited by their workers could be related. The biggest hypocrite turns out to have been one of the Victorian era’s greatest socialist thinkers, William Morris. The source of his early wealth was the shares and dividends from Devon Great Consols, an arsenic mine near Tavistock. Of Morris’ many achievements, the one to which his name is still linked in the public mind are his wonderful designs for wallpaper produced by his company Morris Marshall Faulkner & Co in the late 19th century, modern versions of which are still visible in many modern homes and available, if you should so wish, at John Lewis. Next time you look at the vibrant greens in his swirling designs, you might want to recall they were once produced using arsenic.

Hawksley’s eye for Dickensian injustice is hardly coincidental. She has written several books relating to her antecedant’s works and writes punchily about the child labourers whose low cost to the business and diminutive size made them eminently suitable. Their job was to clean the wood blocks, so causing arsenic particles to lift into unventilated factory air, resulting in lesions, premature mortality or still births in those who made it into adulthood.

It all seems so far off and hardly related to our EU Chemical Directive-led world in which all elements, compounds, alloys (called mixtures by the law) are now regulated. The issue of poisonous 19th Century wallpaper, though, is also the story of how slow society was to accept that it was toxifying itself. One Doctor realises that the wallpaper in his study is giving off an arsenic gas when damp. He traces the wallpaper to be the source of his illness as, each time he leaves for a holiday by the sea he later recovers, only to fall back into illness upon his return home. But he is powerless to stop its use. In fact, as Hawksley explains, English materialism in the end meant that no law in England was ever passed in Parliament to ban arsenic and only popular outcry, the equivalent of a Twitter or Facebook campaign today, ultimately changed the policy of manufacturers. The paper makers finally realised they would not sell unless it was marked as ‘arsenic free’.

For those who like their murders Victorian, there is much to enjoy on this theme too; in the accounts of numerous women who choose arsenic as the poison of choice with which to rid themselves of rich husbands thirty years their senior. The most famous of these cases was Florence Maybrick, an American, who married a wealthy English cotton merchant and found that household fly papers doped with arsenic, if washed off, could be a useful resource if administered in food and drink.

For ‘cotton merchant’ perhaps you could read ‘metal’; so, if you happen to fit the profile, may I suggest you mix the drinks yourself this holiday – and perhaps don’t buy the book either, as it might give the old lady ideas.

The history of the abuse of metal is a long and rich seam. We might think of polonium and Litvinenko. Or recall the cake baked by a disaffected Iraqi colonel a few years ago, given to his commander as a make-up present following an argument. The general was so moved he took it home for the family, who were all subsequently killed. It had been baked with thallium. The use and abuse of elements can give a metal a bad name. We might think of beryllium and beryliosis (a disease much like asbestosis) in which the human organism will expire in the effort to rid itself of a single particle. And yet, who would not want to see the safe use of beryllium copper alloyed quite safely in your light switch? Or we could think of cadmium, an element almost outlawed entirely by the diktats of the EU Chemical Directive – one that gives the colour yellow to paint. You can be sure that until a good substitute is found, there will be less bright yellow taxis on the road and Joni Mitchell’s song will pass into history.

What the story of arsenic tells us is that human advances in any direction can so easily come with side-effects. We could consider the way in which diesel cars were advertised as a solution to excess carbon emissions, but then generated nitrous oxides that nobody had previously thought was the main issue. Today, we worry about the high presence of small particles (so called PM 2.5, those 2.5 micron particles that lodge unseen in the lungs of city dwellers) and yet the public is still buying and driving diesel.

I have been an opponent of the EU Chemical Directive ever since it was mooted in 2001 but speaking to Angela Alderman at Johnson Matthey a few months ago, a veteran of the directive, I asked her if she could tell me one good thing about the law. She said the law had forced users of elements to go back to the drawing board and users, manufacturers, chemists, had found out more about the substances they were using.  The law has cost billions but if it has genuinely resulted in less side-effects from chemicals, compounds, and elements in various forms and configurations, who could argue against it?

The lesson of arsenic and the century it took to remove it from products where it was harmful, is that we need to remain vigilant about ingredients when any mass product comes into contact with the person; whether it is the microwaves or radiation from a mobile phone strapped to the ear, or mercury in your rice caused by its use in artisanal gold mining in South East Asia leaching  into the water system and taken up by the crop.

Beauty, taste or convenience should not stop us from asking the questions.




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