Scheele’s Green Wallpaper: The Victorian Era’s Killer Hue

virtuelle-belle
3 min readJun 28, 2023

Speckled through this essay are sample images of Victorian wallpaper containing arsenic. All samples are from Shadows of the Walls of Death by Robert Clark Kedzie, published in 1874.

The text and samples are available for viewing from the Internet Archive here: https://archive.org/details/0234555.nlm.nih.gov/page/n30/mode/1up

With the knowledge of this pigment’s notoriety, its usage in each wallpaper sample takes on a sinister appearance, each instance of green appearing unnatural and eerie.

Victorian wallpaper boasted ornate patterns and bright colors, perhaps most infamously a piercing green known frequently as Scheele’s Green. The pigment owed its hue to toxic copper arsenite and its name to Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who invented the hue in 1775.

While the toxicity of arsenic had been known for centuries at the time, wallpapers (as well as tapestries, candles, cloth, and many other products) containing copper arsenite were still manufactured and immensely popular in Victorian England.

However, the medical community was aware of the pigment’s dangers, and in 1880 a report was published by the Medical Society of London entitled “A report on Arsenical Poisoning by Means of Wall-papers, paints, etc.” This report featured numerous accounts from Victorian doctors attesting to the toxic effects of arsenic pigment, with many even having firsthand experience.

One case read, “A physician and his wife suffered from conjunctivitis and from nausea after food. On the arrival of a relative, who soon was attacked in a similar manner, the cause was traced to the drawing-room paper, which contained arsenic” (p. 2).

Additionally, a summary of the cases was as follows: “Several instances of external irritation are mentioned, such as eczema from stockings and gloves, conjunctivitis from tulle dresses, eczema of the head from artificial flowers, etc.” (p. 3).

Scheele’s Green wallpaper poisoned Victorians in two ways. For one, flakes of dust could be created and then inhaled whenever the wallpaper was disturbed. Additionally, the wallpaper could emit toxic gas when the environment was damp.

While Scheele’s Green grew unpopular as the Victorian Era came to a close, copper arsenite remained an insecticide until the 1930s.

One’s knee-jerk reaction upon reading about arsenic is to scoff at Victorians. Who would use a toxic substance in everyday items, especially in one’s home or clothing? However, lead paint’s ubiquity in the 20th century shows that our grandparents didn’t learn from theirs.

Even today, studies have shown that toxic levels of lead are present in textiles from many fashion retailers. This emphasizes the importance of researching products and not assuming, as many Victorians did, that the manufacturing processes of modernity are inherently safe.

Sources:

https://archive.org/details/0234555.nlm.nih.gov/page/n97/mode/2up

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/victorian-wallpaper-got-its-gaudy-colors-poison-180962709/

https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/an-arsenic-green-wallpaper-to-dye-for.php

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scheele%27s_Green

https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2005/em/b413752n

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3179678/

https://archive.org/details/b22379046/page/4/mode/2up

https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/marketplace-fast-fashion-chemicals-1.6193385

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