21 Nov 2016

When arsenic was everywhere

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 21 November 2016

The vivid, beautiful 19th century wallpaper that made the names of leading aesthetes such as William Morris was laced with poison - specifically arsenic.

Lucinda Hawksley is an art historian and author of Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home. 

Witch fever was a direct quote from William Morris, who said doctors who claimed arsenic in wallpaper was making people ill had been bitten by witch fever - just as had doctors in Salem.

The problem with arsenic poisoning is not everyone would get ill, and not everyone would display similar symptoms.

“People who had more protein in their diet were less likely to get arsenic poisoning than people without, so all of these things confused doctors,” Hawksley says.  

Arsenic made incredible colours, famously a bright green. The process was discovered in the 18th Century by a German chemist.

“He created this incredible green that everybody flocked to buy because it was so beautiful and vibrant.”

Decades later, when people in Germany were starting to warn of its dangers, arsenic became popular in Britain.

It was used in a multitude of products: soap and beauty products, food colouring - even medicines.

“People thought if it’s safe to use in medicines then it’s got to be safe to have on the walls,” Hawksley says.  

But eventually, public pressure about the dangers of arsenic meant its use faded.

Even William Morris started to sell ‘arsenic-free’ wallpaper.  Although he was never convinced it was a problem, perhaps because his family fortune came from copper mining, from which arsenic was a by-product.