4 Apr 2017

Poisonous green

Have you ever seen a colour so sickly and lurid it makes you feel quite unwell?

In which case, you might be interested to know that there was actually a colour, used liberally in Victorian times, which could kill you from the comfort of your own sitting room.

The colour was called Sheele's green, and was used in all sorts of furnishings, but most predominantly in wallpaper.

Green - so relaxing...
In the Victorian Age, the general population went mad for wallpaper.  Gas lamps for the home had just been invented, and people suddenly found their dark and dingy drawing rooms thrown into a rather awkward amount of light.  Cue the clamour for beautiful patterned wallpaper.  The colour was an all important factor, and was considered have a significant effect on everything from your general mood to the health and well-being.  And, of course, your fashionability.  Brighter hues were favoured to make the most of the new light in their daily lives.  Thus the garish emerald shade - Scheelle's green - was born.  And which compound was chosen to produce this miraculous colour?  Why, arsenic of course!  The pigment-of-the-moment favoured by Pre-Raphaelites and poets - for painting and for suicide, respectively.

If you are a house owner in the 1800s, domestic life is changing enormously for you.  You and your dear significant other are now spending more and more time reclining in your home than the previous generation.  A great deal of emphasis is put on ownership of decorative objects - and keeping up appearances was the height of importance.  You turn to your Cassell's Household Guide to learn 'The Principles of Good Taste', wherein green is described as a most "reposeful" colour to introduce to your walls.  You would certainly never think to connect the slowly declining health of your family to your wallpaper, not when there are so many other weird and terrifying diseases around to scratch your head at.  And what could be more indicative of your intellectual and cultural good taste than a room papered with Scheele's Green wallpaper...?  Except perhaps if the room is papered with a green William Morris designed wallpaper.

Most of us will be familiar with original hipster William Morris, that famous hero of the decorative and handmade, steadfastly supporting the artisan over the mass-manufacturer.

But perhaps less of us will be familiar with William Morris, director of the largest arsenic mine in the UK, and profiteer of nationwide poisoning.  Is it possible that he might have had an ulterior motive when writing the following in this letter?

"As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly was hardly possible to imagine; the doctors were bitten as people bitten by 'witch fever'." - William Morris

Morris eventually did cave in to pressure, and create an 'arsenic-free paper', but only at the whim of public demand.  He continued to deny the possibility of any ill-health resulting from his dangerous decorations.  Because of the excellent amount of money to be made from arsenic use it was indeed an inconvenient truth, as proved when the banning of arsenic wallpaper was brought up in parliament and duly ignored.  To this day no legislation has been passed.  In the end what really killed it dead was Queen Victoria joining the cause against it in 1879, after a foreign guest spent one night in a green guest room at the palace, and ended up feeling rather green himself.

It's hard to imagine that, despite the increasing cases of slow and mysterious deaths being linked to poisonous paper during this era, many people still bought them in swathes.  Then again, people still bought cigarettes long after they had been proved poisonous...

So, hey - what's one little feature panel in the bedroom?

Nowadays, vintage-style patterned wallpaper seems to be very in vogue again, after a brief post-Laura-Ashley hiatus.  As my blog readers will know, I love anything patterned, detailed and vintage, so I'm very happy with this turn of events!  I am now trying my best to get my own patterns printed onto wallpaper.

What do you think?  No poisons - guaranteed!

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