Shadows From the Walls of Death

Updated: Dec 4, 2018


You might find it interesting, as I did, to learn that arsenic was once referred to as "the inheritance powder". During the Victorian period, arsenic would have been a product found in most households where it was commonly used for rodent poisoning. But wait, we can't just limit our troubling images to those sweet little ladies in the dark comedy/mystery, "Arsenic and Old Lace". Would you believe that not only your wallpaper but your clothing and even your cosmetics might be laced with this deadly powder?

From as early as 1870, physicians' reports proved that the green dye used in the most fashionable wallpaper was contributing to the deaths of their patients. Shadows From the Walls of Death was written in 1874 by Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, both a surgeon and a professor of chemistry. He attempted to warn the public of the dangers of a dye known as Scheele’s Green or Paris Green.


He was ultimately successful, even persuading Queen Victoria to tear down the offending wallpaper in Buckingham Palace. The doctor's flare for the dramatic is illustrated by the title he chose.

Could your wallpaper be killing you?

The deeper one digs into this shadowy chapter of history, the more fascinating it becomes. Because the doctor wished to make clear his concerns for specific manufacturers and wallpapers using the deadly dye, he supplied samples of the papers in his books. As a natural but ironic result, the book itself became deadly. Today there are only a few copies of the book remaining in libraries. To read them it's necessary to wear protective gloves. If you are intrigued, follow this link to learn more.


How a Library Handles a Rare and Deadly Book of Wallpaper Samples

Still interested in learning more? Lucinda Hawksley's book goes into great detail about how this dye affected so many as a result of its widespread use. Manufacturers of cosmetics, children's toys, and even cake decorating supplies employed the dye to delight and infect hundreds and perhaps thousands of citizens. Even the innocent looking artificial flowers used to adorn the hairstyles of the day were commonly using it to capture that lovely shade of green.


Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home

A very interesting blog post by Allison Meyers includes some fascinating photos and more details from Ms. Hawksley's book. It can be found by following this link.


Death by Wallpaper: The Alluring Arsenic Colors that Poisoned the Victorian Age

Sometimes facts are harder to swallow than fiction. What fascinating facts relating to the Victorian period have you uncovered?

#Victorianresearch #arsenicpoisoning #Victoriandecor #Victorianlife

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