Walking down the block you pass an interior design boutique. Its windows feature a luxurious display of velvet curtains, crystal vases and elegant lamps. One object in particular catches your eye. “Oh,” you pines, “that wallpaper is to die for!” »
Today, such a statement is only figurative language. But 150 years ago, in Victorian Britain, it would have spoken a sad truth.
Wallpaper at the time was colored with a vibrant pigment called Scheele’s Green. The Victorians loved their colorful interiors, the backdrops of which were often adorned with floral wallpapers. The wallpaper patterns, ranging from greenery to abstract designs to pastoral illustrations, are captivated when dyed with Scheele’s Green.
In 1775, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele created artificial color by mixing the wrong mix of chemicals. He first heated sodium carbonate, then added arsenious oxide. The final ingredient was copper sulfate, which was responsible for the grassy tint.
The result was a chemical compound called copper arsenite. As you may have guessed from its name, copper arsenite contains the deadly element arsenic.
Scheele wrote about the dangerous properties of its color, but that didn’t stop the Victorians from using the dye in all manner of objects. At first, they feared that arsenic would be fatal only if ingested. But in the 1860s, as workers and families fell ill and died, reports circulated blaming the wallpaper. It is believed that the arsenic flaked off the wallpaper in tiny flakes which were inhaled. It is also likely that if the wallpaper became wet it would cause a chemical reaction in Scheele’s Green, releasing a toxic gas.
Arsenic wallpaper quickly fell into disuse, now remembered as a monster dyed green.