Don’t lick the wallpaper…

… good general life advice you might think, but in Victorian Britain’s arsenic-imbued green-wallpapered rooms it could literally save your life to hold your tongue. Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley is a beautifully designed book (just like those luscious wallpapers) with death at its heart. The Victorians (of a certain, moneyed class) never met a new, vibrant colour that they didn’t like, or immediately apply to their households and themselves. Meanwhile the other classes, made (in atrocious conditions, no need to lick anything, just breathe the air around you) and sold the goods that were so desired – and so deadly.
Scheele’s green and schweinfurt green, pigments created using arsenic, were used to produce the startling green wallpapers that became immensely popular. Designers and manufacturers (William Morris described the ridiculous fears of those worried about the worrying papers as the ramblings of those “bitten by witch fever”) were dismissive of the potentially fatal effects of covering your walls with arsenic-imbued paper (cigarette companies anyone?). Heating rooms with fire and gas is thought to have created a miasma of the awful compounds: it wasn’t the tight lacing of corsets that made Victorian maidens swoon, it was dancing in clouds of nasty contaminated air.
One of the theories about why Napoleon died when he did, is that he was poisoned by his fashionable Scheele’s green wallpaper in his lonely St Helena bedroom, as he sat out his final exile. Mind you, arsenic was everywhere: in bread – an excellent whitener, eaten as a medicine, used in quantities to rid houses of vermin. A number of the big Victorian poisoning murder trials hinged on trying to prove that the victim hadn’t just ingested the fatal dose just going about everyday life – a lot of the time, looking back at the evidence presented, it is fifty-fifty if evil or stupidity was afoot. We can thank the prevalence of the use of arsenic in all sorts of industrial processes, and the manufacturers’ refusal to not use it, for the introduction of regulations and laws protecting consumers and workers from the ill-effects of using ingredients and chemicals that can injure and kill you really, really easily.

The book it very beautiful, with is lovely green cover, the text is on pages sliced in half vertically, nestling between breathtaking images of wallpapers on full size pages. These are so lively and stunning and exquisite – that you can see why people wanted them on their walls despite the danger – a bit like eating fugu, for the frisson of dancing with death and a slightly numb tongue. Best all round really, to keep your tongue in your cheek.

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