Killer Wallpaper by Andrew Meharg

This article on the amazing use of deadly arsenic in Victorian wallpapers first appeared in Spectroscopy Europe and is reproduced with permission.

Aniline dyes, developed by William Perkin in the 1850s, were the beginning of the end for a host of mineral pigments widely used in interior décor. Chromium, cadmium, mercury, lead, cyanide, antimony and arsenic salts were once commonplace as paint, wallpaper, food and fabric pigments. The arsenic pigments Scheele’s green and Emerald green, the mercurial vermilion, green lead chromate, cadmium yellow, arsenical Naples ’s yellow, the cyanide salt Prussian blue, were the staple colours used to brighten up the Georgian and Victorian home. Whites were often lead white or arsenic trioxide. In the early days aniline dyes were far from safe with arsenious acid, used as a reductant in the dye manufac- ture,often present in high concentrations.

What were the health consequences of these metal pigments? There is little direct systematic evidence collected during the 19th century, but there is a vast amount of circumstantial evidence from newspaper and medical press articles suggesting mass poisoning of the Victorian world. A campaign was run by the Lancet to banish arsenic greens — copper arsenite (Scheele’s green) and copper aceto arsenite (Emerald green)—as many illnesses and deaths were attributed to rooms wallpapered with arsenic stained papers. Arsenic greens were first synthesised in 1778 by the renowned Swedish chemist Karl Scheele —the discoverer of oxygen (independently from Joseph Priestly). By 1863 500 –700 tonnes of arsenic green were manufactured in Britain.

Initially, deaths and illness attributed to green-papered rooms were thought to be caused by flecks of green dust detached from the wallpaper being breathed in. However, the cause of this arsenical illness was much more subtle. The German chemist Gmelin (responsible for the systematisation of organic chemistry) first noticed back in 1839 that in damp rooms with arsenic green wallpaper there was a “mouse-like” odour,which he thought was a gaseous derivative of cacadylic acid (dimethyl arsinic acid). It was only at the end of the 19th century that the Italian chemist Gosi isolated the gas and found that it had a garlic smell. Gosio had worked out that fungi living on wallpaper paste converted inorganic arsenic into a gas. Frederick Challenger identified Gosio ’s gas in the 1930s to be the highly toxic trimethylarsine. This gas had killed many, mainly children dying in their green decorated bedrooms. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that arsenic greens were finally phased out.

Trying to reconstruct past exposures, and the extent of arsenic use in wallpapers, is extremely difficult. Wallpapers are highly ephemeral and there are few collections of 19th century wallpapers to explore. My investigations into the use of arsenic, and other pigments, in wallpapers started with the most celebrated of British wallpapers, those of William Morris (1834 –1996). His company Morris &Co. produced beautiful papers from hand printed, hand carved blocks from 1864 onwards. As Morris was central to the “Arts and Crafts” revival, and particularly to the resurrection of ancient dyeing techniques, his mythology suggests that he used natural pigments. This is from a Morris essay on pigments:

Of these dyes [aniline &synthetic] it must be enough to say that their discovery, while conferring the greatest honour on the abstract science of chemistry, and while doing a great service to capitalists in their hunt after profits, has terribly injured the art of dyeing, and for the general public has nearly destroyed it as an art.

However, a revealing letter of 1885 from Morris to his dyer Thomas Wardle suggested that he might have used arsenic greens in his famous and desirable designs. The letter piqued my interest, and early samples of Morris &Co. wallpapers were tracked down to the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, in the UK, once the childhood home of Morris. The Gallery had a scrap,10 cm by 10 cm, of Trellis, Morris’ first wallpaper design, and the third to be printed. It came from the home of Morris’ general foreman George Campfield, and for this reason was thought to be of early origin. The scrap I received was a red rose on a green branch. The Museum allowed me to remove tiny flakes of pigments from Trellis for microanalysis. The results were immediate and impressive. The green branch was an arsenic-copper salt, the red rose vermilion. A highly toxic piece of art! This research was published in Nature.

Further investigations became problematic, since museums and archives were not keen on sending precious wallpaper samples through the post — particularly as most of the samples were large, unlike the scrap of Trellis . Also ,routinely taking flakes of samples was not going to endear one to curators. Some of the objects I wanted to look at could not be posted. Of particular interest was an early Morris &Co. (actually at this stage Morris,Marshal,Faulkner &Co.) commission, the Green Dining Room at the Victoria &Albert (V&A) Museum, built in the 1860s. Were the famous patrons of this most fashionable of London eateries, such as Whistler and Pointer, poisoned by trimethyl arsine, by this very green room?

Museums and galleries, while interested in studies into arsenic greens, would only allow investigations if they were undertaken at site with a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument. Consequently, in collaboration with Niton Europe GmbH, a trial was arranged at the V&A and the Trellis scrap was tested with a portable XRF spectrometer —reassuringly it was arsenic and mercury rich. The walls of the Green Dining Room proved to be highly contaminated, but not with arsenic. The XRF signal was saturated by the pigment lead chromate.

Impressed by the trial, and also considering the endless possibilities for furthering our group ’s interests in historical pollution, soil pollution and plant biogeochemistry,a Niton Portable XRF spectrometer was purchased, funded jointly by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council and Aberdeen University. Among the early samples analysed in our laboratory was a suspiciously lurid green wallpaper sample from Charles Eastlake ’s 1860s classic Victorian authoritative handbook Hints on Household Taste. Within seconds we had established that arsenic greens mixed with cadmium yellow were responsible for the not very subtle colouration. Scraps of 19th century wallpaper started to show other interesting elemental contents. Silver showed up quite frequently; other techniques soon identified flakes of silver and gold foil embedded in the pigments of many of the papers. These precious metals probably were dust generated from wallpaper gilding, suggesting the papers came from high-class manufacturers.

The wallpaper firm Sanderson now owns Morris &Co., and I was allowed to visit their Morris &Co .archive with the portable XRF. The archive contains a logbook of all Morris ’wallpaper designs, kept in chronological order. I was able to establish that nine out the first eleven designs contained colourways that used arsenic pigments, with the use of arsenic stopping somewhere around 1872. Thus arsenic could be used to identify very early Morris &Co. papers. A visit to the William Morris Gallery helped me prove that a Morris wallpaper sample, Fruit from a collection of Morris &Co. artefacts by Edward Burne-Jones (the Pre-Raphaelite artist and founding member of Morris, Marshall,Faulkner &Co.), was, unexpectedly, an early printing as it contained arsenical pigments. The visit to the gallery also had another surprise. On the way in I noticed a display board outlining the discovery of a piece of wallpaper under the floorboards. Its design placed it firmly during William Morris’ childhood.The green design on a white background arose my suspicion. I was able to confirm on the spot that Morris’ house was also polluted with arsenic green, and probably trimethyl arsine.

Having examined the top end of the wallpaper market, I was keen to address what the poor were exposed to with respect to trimethyl arsine. The British Medical Journal in 1871 had noted, “In the majority of dwelling houses, from palace down to the navy’s hut, it is rare to meet with a house where arsenic is not visible on the walls of at least some of the rooms ”. Enquiries at the National Trust for Scotland revealed that they had a building that contained 19th century wallpapers, the poor farm longhouse at Morlanich, Perthshire, built in the early 19th century. The residents obviously did not have a wallpaper stripper as peeling wallpaper on the walls revealed that it consisted of about twenty layers, including suspiciously green papers. With the portable XRF spectrometer I was able to identify on-site that about six of the designs contained arsenic. To confirm that no trimethylarsine was present in the wallpapered rooms, air samples were taken and analysed by Joerg Feldmann. No arsenic gas was present, so the house is safe.

But it was not just wallpapers that were dyed green with arsenic — clothes were. The Times newspaper asked “What manufactured article in these days of high-pressure civilization can possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous” following a revelation that high levels of arsenic were found in socks.

W.S.Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame wrote in his 1869 Bab Ballad, Only a dancing girl:

No airy fairy she, As she hangs in arsenic green, From a highly impossible tree, In a highly impossible scene (Herself not over clean)

Medical reports of ill effects of arsenic green dresses abounded. The picture opposite shows an 1848 fashion plate from La Mode .The dress was probably dyed with arsenic green. XRF analysis showed that the ink used on the print to colour the dress green is a copper-arsenic salt.

Andrew Meharg’s book Venomous Earth is published by Macmillan Science.

11 thoughts on “Killer Wallpaper by Andrew Meharg

    • Yes, but Martin only talked about the stripping of the wallpaper releasing arsenic into the air. He did not mention that it was because the wallpaper was two shades of very deep green.
      Regardless, I love the brilliant Doc Martin!

  1. Pingback: Fifty shades of Green – A precautionary tale | daryanenergyblog

  2. I am removing old wallpaper in my house dating back to the 1800s. Some of it is dark green with gold accents. Should I be concerned?

  3. We have absolutely stunning wallpaper in our upstairs hall that has been there since the house was built in 1850. In the design there are dark green leaves. There are also bright cobalt blue accents that have not faded one bit. We plan to keep it. Is it likely to be dangerous after 163 years?

      • He says: ‘Given the age of the wall paper it could either be arsenical or lead chromate -. If concerned suggest that a section is removed for analysis – I’m happy to do this. Might be worthwhile taking some dust wipe samples in the room – though this would need to be done systematically with controls etc.. Suspect after 150 years that pigment loss from the wall paper is minimal – but if concerned should check it out.’ If you want to do this drop me an email at brian@brianclegg.net and I will forward it to Prof. Meharg.

  4. I have six old framed fashion plates from La Mode just like the one mentioned in your article. Do I need to be concerned about them as long as they remain in their frames? Or, are they leaking toxic gasses?! I love to collect antiques and spend time in antique stores, and this article has made me a little queasy. I’ll certainly never buy anything green again! Thank you for your help.

    • It seems unlikely – the main reference here was to the dress itself and the quantity of arsenic in the print is likely to be limited – but I have forwarded your query to Professor Meharg to see if he can comment further.

      • Dr Meharg responded: ‘I have a couple of these at home, along with other examples of 19th C use of arsenic pigments in books, prints and wallpapers – some of which have framed and displayed. Stored away they are no problem, framed they are no problem. I wouldn’t handle them that much – and would ensure that children etc don’t have access to them.’

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