the mode macabre: it’s not that easy being green

I had so much fun sharing my first tale of horrible fashion history (combustion due to crinoline!) that I was inspired to select another delightfully morbid story about bygone styles to present to friends and semi-strangers at my best friend’s Presentation Party. And today I’m going to share it with you! Carry on to learn about a most pernicious pigment and why Victorians just couldn’t seem to resist it.

Note: This post does contain some slightly gruesome medical illustrations – viewer discretion advised!

Scheele’s Green. Paris Green. Emerald Green. Apart from being beautifully vibrant pigments popular in the Victorian era, what do these colors have in common?

They were are chockful of arsenic!

A historical cartoon of two skeletons dressed as a lady and gentleman, subtitled "The Arsenic Waltz"
V0042226 Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862. 1862 Published: February 8, 1862 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0

Scheele’s Green was the first pigment created in this fashion, but Victorian pigment-makers quickly discovered that mixing arsenic with copper sulfate created a green that was brighter, longer-lasting, and cheaper to make than the other pigments on the market. Of course, they failed to recognize the fact that it was also about a zillion times deadlier.

A green Victorian gown

Victorians were, on the whole, bonkers for green. There was a feeling that the Industrial Revolution had ruined society, and the wealthy longed to reconnect with their pastoral past. Faux flowers, specifically faux flower headdresses, were immmensely popular. This lust was only increased by Empress Eugenie (the most fire #INFLUENCER of her day) wearing a stunning (and very poisonous) green gown to the opera. Scheele’s Green and other pigments of its ilk were used in clothing, faux flowers, wallpaper, and more.

A medical text depicting illustrations of lesions due to arsenic exposure
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0

Exposure to arsenic can cause skin lesions, vomiting, diarrhea, and in some cases cancer. In a newspaper report at the time, a world-renowned analytical chemist, Dr. A. W. Hoffman, was asked to test these deadly green fashions. Looking at the artificial leaves used in ladies’ headdresses, Hoffman concluded that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to kill 20 people. The “green tarlatanes so much of late in vogue for ball dresses” were also heavy on the arsenic. A doctor in Berlin suggested that a green ball gown would shed approximately 60 grains of powder in the course of an evening – four or five grains was considered lethal for the average adult.

For most people, wearing arsenic-laced clothing lead to rashes, irritation, blisters, and sores. Women wearing green gloves, for example, that had not been properly sealed, experienced blisters on their hands. Of course, the factory workers tasked with applying the dyes and working with the fabrics were not so lucky. Perhaps the most famous victim of this grim green was Matilda Scheurer, a 19-year-old factory girl who worked “fluffing” artificial leaves and dusting them with green pigment. She became gravely ill due to her repeated exposure to arsenic; leading up to her death, she was said to have “vomited green waters” and the whites of her eyes had also turned green. She reportedly told her doctor “everything she looked at was green.”

Perhaps one of the most influential people impacted by the arsenic greens was Queen Victoria herself – after a diplomat complained of being ill after staying overnight in an arsenic-green room, she had the wallpaper stripped and redone. There are also theories that Napoleon’s death may have been caused by the molding of his arsenic-laced wallpaper.

It’s hard to deny the morbid magic of a dress that’s literally deadly. As Bell Biv Devoe would say, “That girl is poison.” Some people theorize that we still often see something poisonous or toxic being depicted as a noxious green because of pigments like Scheele’s Green.

(If you’d like to view my slideshow version of this story from the presentation party, you can check it out here!)


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2 Comment

  1. Reply
    Chelsea Celaya
    May 11, 2019 at 12:43 am

    This is so much horrifying fashion history! It’s amazing what one would to for beauty, and it certainly always feels like the victorians bring the macabre to fashion more than anyone else. (Your slideshow was super fun to click through, by the way! Was waiting to be on my laptop to view it properly)

    1. Reply
      Penny Snark
      May 11, 2019 at 10:19 pm

      The Victorians def were always bringing some wild shit to the table! and thanks! It was super fun to present to everyone πŸ˜€

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