Arsenic and Old Wallpapers

“My wallpapers are killing me; one of us must go!” Oscar Wilde’s infamous last words are usually construed as a rueful comment on the ugliness of the decorations in his Paris hotel bedroom. Yet they could also be interpreted literally, and applied to the thousands of Victorians who fell victim to the deadly pigments in their wallpapers. Even from the vantage point of the recent pandemic, the nineteenth century was a hazardous time to be alive: subject to regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, grinding poverty and malnutrition, and shockingly dangerous conditions in workplaces and factories. Some of the greatest perils were invisible, like the lead, phosphorus and carbon that were present in water, soil, and even the air that Victorians breathed.  But none of these toxins could rival the variety or extent of the arsenic-laden poisons that helped to give the nineteenth century its dubious sobriquet, ‘Arsenic’s Golden Age’. This post explores the dangers of arsenic poisoning in Victorian wallpapers.

A by-product of the processes involved in mining for copper, lead and tin, arsenic has been a popular weapon for murderers since ancient times. The emperor Nero, the Medici family, and the even more homicidal Borgias were all fans, as were less exalted individuals like Guilia Toffano, whose lethal doctoring of cosmetics was reputed to have killed nearly 600 victims in the 1600s.[1]  But death by arsenic poisoning really took off in the nineteenth century with the growth of the life insurance industry, which made ‘poisoning for profit’ increasingly tempting to the greediest beneficiaries. Difficult to detect – it was virtually without taste or smell – arsenic was also widely available from grocers’ shops and pharmacies and could even be ordered by post.  It was not until 1851 that customers were required to sign a poisons’ register and that arsenic could no longer be sold to children.

Mary Ellen Best, ‘Dining Room at York’, 1840s. The bright green striped wallpaper almost certainly contained arsenic.

Accidents were even more widespread than homicides, and nineteenth-century newspapers contain frequent reports of housewives and servants who mistook the deadly white powder for a harmless cooking ingredient like flour or ground rice. A particularly tragic case occurred in Bradford in 1858 when a confectioner added arsenic instead of sugar to a batch of peppermints; 21 children died and another 78 were severely ill.[2]

But far more people died from ingesting the poison voluntarily, and legally, than were the victims of mishaps or crimes.  Arsenic was practically everywhere during the Victorian period and wallpaper was by no means the only, or the worst of, the culprits. It was used in cleaning products, in candles, in dyes for fabrics and decorations, in health tonics, and even as a supplement in foodstuffs. Its medical properties seem to have been especially appealing. Fowler’s Solution, for example, containing arsenic trioxide, promised a miracle cure for virtually every ailment from asthma to dysentery, and continued to be sold well into the twentieth century.[3]

William Morris, ‘Trellis’, 1864. An early Morris wallpaper containing arsenic.

However, it was the mid-century ‘rage for green’ and the taste for vivid, brilliant colours that greatly encouraged the introduction of the poison into the Victorian home. The addition of arsenic and copper produced unprecedentedly bright hues and pigments that were far more durable and eye-catching than their predecessors. The most notorious – and popular – were Scheele’s green, developed in 1775 by the German chemist Carl Willhelm Scheele, and Schweinfurt or Paris green, invented in 1814 by Wilhelm Sattler and Friedrich Russ as a more stable version of its predecessor.  Both pigments were used in the dyeing of vast quantities of paints, papers and fabrics, and a major consumer was the wallpaper industry.

The manufacture of wallpaper rose dramatically in Britain from the 1840s. The repeal of the tax on printed paper (1836) and the introduction of machine printing (from 1839) led to a massive increase in the amounts that were produced and an equally spectacular reduction in costs. The cheapest papers sold for as little as a penny a roll and by 1874 over 32 million rolls were being produced every year.[4] Arsenical pigments were used in many different coloured papers, not just green. They also enhanced other shades, including blues, reds, mauves, pinks, yellows, browns and greys and they featured just as prominently in conventional floral and revivalist patterns as in more progressive Anglo-Japanese and Aesthetic designs. In 1858, one manufacturer estimated that 100 million square miles of arsenic-coloured papers were to be found on the walls of British homes, prompting the chemist, Alfred Taylor, to declare that “wallpaper now furnishes arsenic to the millions”[5].

R. Kenzie, ‘Shadows from the Wall of Death’, 1874, including samples of arsenical wallpaper.

The effects of poisoning ranged from mild to severe and included headaches, vomiting, aching limbs and lesions. Sickness was initially thought to be caused by ingesting fragments of arsenic dust but this theory was finally debunked in 1891 when the Italian chemist Bartolomeo Gosio proved that it was the combination of arsenic in pigments and funghi in wallpaper paste that produced a toxic gas that could prove fatal.[6] Stories of adults falling prey to mysterious and debilitating illnesses were legion. William Hinds, a Birmingham physician, described suffering from abdominal cramps and light-headedness brought on by the green wallpapers in his study in 1857, while two of his patients reported sore throats, weakness and inflamed eyes that miraculously disappeared when they left their home for a seaside holiday.[7] But it was children who were most vulnerable. The 1862 case of four young siblings living in Limehouse in London’s East End who died after sharing a room decorated with wallpapers infused with Scheele’s Green caused a huge public outcry.[8] And no house, however grand, was immune to danger. Even Buckingham Palace had its poisonous wallpapers, all thankfully removed in 1879 after a visiting dignitary complained of sickness following a night in an arsenically-decorated bedroom.[9]

Advertisement for Artiștic Arsenic Free Wallpapers, 1870s. Credit: British Library.

Public anxiety reached fever pitch in the 1870s, and numerous scientific committees and physicians called for the outlawing of arsenic in wallpapers and other household goods. While many foreign governments complied, the authorities in Britain and the USA were reluctant to challenge the interests of manufacturers or to sacrifice the revenue brought in by taxes on arsenic, a situation that recalls the delays in regulating the tobacco industry a century later. Many people remained sceptical about the dangers. William Morris, for example, refused to accept that concerns about arsenic were anything more than the results of ignorance and scaremongering. Morris’s early designs, like Trellis (1864) not only contained arsenical colours, but Morris himself was also a major shareholder in Devon Great Consuls, one of the largest arsenic mines in the world.[10]  It is ironic to think that it was the dividends from this venture that helped ensure the success of Morris & Co.

William Woollams & Co, Advertisement for Arsenic Free wallpapers, 1889.

In the end, it was public pressure that forced manufacturers – including Morris – to eliminate poisonous substances from their products. The London-based firm Woollams & Co ceased production of arsenical wallpapers as early as 1859, and were eventually awarded a gold medal in recognition of their services to public welfare. Other firms slowly began to follow suit and increasing numbers of companies began to market their products healthy as well as beautiful.  Jeffrey & Co., whose output included designs by Owen Jones, E. W. Godwin, B. J. Talbert and Walter Crane, advertised a range of Patent Hygienic Wallpapers in 1884 that promised to be not only Artistic but also Arsenic-Free – a vital consideration in the manufacture of nursery wallpapers like Crane’s Sleeping Beauty (1879)[11]

Gradually, healthy wallpapers became good business, and a 1900 Home Office report announced that British wallpaper was ‘practically’ arsenic-free[12]. But the dangers have never completely disappeared; toxic vapours can still be released if the offending papers are papered over rather than stripped off the wall. So, it may be worth examining your historic wallpapers more closely if you want to guarantee a healthy night’s sleep!

Notes & references

Header image: Cartoon in Punch, 1858, showing the toxic adulteration of sweets in the Bradford case of 1858.

[1] Hawksley, L., Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper and Arsenic in the Victorian Home, London 2016, p26

[2] ibid, p94

[3] Whorton, James, The Arsenic Century: How Britain was Poisoned at Work, Home and Play, Oxford, 2010, pp233-6

[4] Hoskins, L. ed., The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques of Wallpaper, London 2005, p136

[5] Whorton, op.cit., p205

[6] Haslam, J.C. ‘Deathly Décor: a short history of arsenic poisoning in the nineteenth century’, Res Medica 2013, 21 (1), p77

[7] Whorton, James, The Arsenic Century: How Britain was Poisoned at Work, Home and Play, Oxford, 2010,

[8] ibid., p206

[9] Carr, Henry, Our Domestic Houses, London, 1879, pp42-50

[10] Haslam, op.cit., p78

[11] An example of this pattern book is in the Morris & Co. (ex-Sanderson) Archive, Dedham, UK

[12] Whorton, op.cit., p225

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