Arsenic dyed gowns, mercury hats, and highly flammable clothing were in large supply during the Victorian era in Europe. I suppose this one fits into the “weird and wonderful” category.
All About the Green
In the early 19th century, fashionable people invested in garments that conveyed their lot in life and, even if these garments proved a danger to them, people dressed to impress. Dresses and accessories were often dyed by mixing copper and highly toxic arsenic trioxide, or white arsenic, to achieve a brilliant green hue that was popular at the time. Women adorned themselves with imitation flowers and wreaths that were dusted with the deadly substance, inhaling the powder and absorbing the toxins through their skin, but the employees tasked with creating the pieces for sale were hit the hardest by this fashion trend.
One such account from 1861 involves a young woman named Matilda Scheurer. She was only 19 and worked in one of the many factories tasked with creating the wearable curios the women of the time desired. Her specific job was to dust, or “fluff,” the leaves of the artificial flowers with green powder. Her exposure was so high, the tips of her fingers had taken on a permanent green hue and even the whites of her eyes were green. When she ate her lunch, the powder from her hands was inevitably ingested. Matilda, as was often the case with garment workers like her, died of her exposure in a rather violent manner. She convulsed and expelled green foam from her eyes, nose, and mouth. Upon examination of her body after her passing, it was found that the green powder had infiltrated her lungs, stomach, and liver.
After Matilda’s death, an organization called the Ladies’ Sanitary Organization, a Miss Nicholson specifically, was particularly vocal regarding the horrifying conditions in which the people worked within the factories and published a first hand account of her findings. She stated that some of the women were half dressed and complaining of “a dreadful cold.” The handkerchiefs they pressed to their noses came away red with blood. Blindness and sores on the face and hands were also common exposure related ailments. The Association commissioned Dr. A.W. Hoffman, a world renowned chemist, to analyze the flowers contained in the average headdress. Hoffman found that one headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people and a ball gown made from 20 yards of fabric could contain upwards of 900 grains of arsenic. Arsenic was also used in the production of shoes, gloves, wallpaper, and curtains.
The fact that the white arsenic used to dye clothes was dirt cheap and alluring to clothiers was attractive and many hundreds of tonnes were used annually in consumer goods. Even small children could purchase it over the counter at any pharmacy. It wasn’t until the passing of the Arsenic Act of 1868 that the amount sold to individuals was regulated, but no limits were imposed on large scale production operations. By the 1880’s , arsenic had been banned from use in the clothing industry, but was still often used in marketing materials and packaging.
Luckily, the move away from arsenic dyed clothing was hastened by the creation of synthetic dyes. Public concern also helped to turn the tide, but the use of arsenic was only banned in Scandinavia, France, and Germany. Britain never banned the practice.
A Tip of the Hat
While women adorned themselves with poisonous foliage and attire, the men of the period also dressed in laced garments. Men’s hats, felted using hare and rabbit fur, were brushed with mercury in order to make the fine hair stick together. Hatters of the time were the hardest hit by exposure. Many experienced neuromotor and psychological problems. Some theorize that the phrase “mad as a hatter” was coined to describe those who suffered from mercury poisoning. Cardio-respiratory problems and tooth loss were common side effects of prolonged mercury exposure, but only the hatters experienced these side effects; The men who purchased the hats were protected by the hat’s inner lining.
The use of mercury in hat making was never explicitly banned in Britain. Rather, hats fell out of fashion in the 1960’s and so the practice died out.
In Victorian England, as well as in other parts of the world during this time period, women swathed themselves in hooped gowns layered with cotton and tulle and moved around spaces lit with candles, oil lamps, and fireplaces. They moved with all the grace of the Hindenburg, so it’s no small wonder that women were often victims of their environment.
In fact, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife is said to have caught fire and died from her injuries, she had sustained severe burns, the following day. Apparently a piece of paper had fallen on her gown, causing her to immediately ignite. Longfellow undoubtedly wore a fitted wool suit, common attire for gentlemen of the period, allowing him to move about more safely in his home environment. Bully for him!
Honestly, it’s a wonder anyone survived.
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