Poisoned Wallpaper

George P. Landow, Shaw Professor of English and Digital Culture (Computer Science), NUS

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Simon Garfield relates how early aniline dyes caused a panic in the 1860s. Although most dyes turned out to be harmless, other compounds used in decorating homes proved lethal:

The main culprit was arsenic acid, used in the oxidation process of several colours. Arsenic was still in limited use, despite an awareness of its devastating effects. Its use in wallpaper and paint was particularly popular, not least in a pale green shade that had caught on in the mid-1860s. Here, arsenite of copper was not just a constituent of the dye but the dye itself, and became known, after its Swedish inventor, as Scheele's Green (Karl Wilhelm Scheele was one of the greatest experimental chemists of the eighteenth century, responsible for groundbreaking work on oxygen and other gases and acids). At Guy's Hospital in London a surgeon had been presented with many patients suffering from sore eyelids and lips and lung and throat complaints, and he was the first to isolate a univerul cause. A cheap and widely used type of wallpaper was decorated in green foliage and flowers, the pattern made up in thick relief of arsenite of copper. Under heat or agitation from brushing or cleaning, particles of dust would slowly poison people in the room.

The newspapers and medical journals carried many reports, and caused considerable panic amongst readers. The Times noted, 'It was not very uncommon for children who slept in a bedroom thus papered even to die of arsenical poisoning, the true nature of the malady not being discovered until it was too late.' [105]


Garfield, Simon. Mauve: How One Man invented a Color that Changed the World. London: Faber & Faber, 2001; New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

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Last modified 17 August 2001