A child’s dress dyed green with arsenic, 1838-1843.
Ah, the color green. Generally associated with good luck and four-leaf fucking clovers the color green was anything but good luck back in the 1800s. During the entire century and into the 1900s arsenic was used in all kinds of everyday products from wallpaper to paint as well as women’s clothing and beauty products. Yikes.
Originally known as “Scheele Green” in 1814 German company Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company decided to try to modify the paint by adding arsenic and verdigris (a blue/green color that is made by using copper or brass to oxidize it). The new color was dubbed “emerald green” and was an overnight smash. It was soon being used for all kinds of things including dying dresses, shoes and flower hair accessories for women, among countless other products too numerous to mention. When the actual “recipe” for the dye was published in 1822 distributors attempted to temper the color as well as change its name so customers would keep using products that would eventually kill many of them.
Due to their constant contact with the deadly dye, seamstresses and makers of flower hair accessories were especially susceptible to the dangers of getting up close and personal with arsenic and would pay for it by developing horrific lesions on their skin or face. And they were the lucky ones. Death from arsenic poisoning was preceded by vomit that was a distinct shade of green, foaming at the mouth and convulsions. All things considered, as bad as things are now, they really seemed a whole lot worse during a time when looking good could literally kill you. I’ve included many images in this post of vintage garments, shoes and other items that drastically cut the average life-expectancy of a lot of ladies and anyone who liked cake because guess what? Arsenic was also used to color cake icing back in the 1800s! If this kind of historical weirdness is your kind of thing I highly recommend picking up the book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David.
The effect of constant contact with arsenic on the hands of perhaps a seamstress or flower maker.
Boots dyed with arsenic, mid-1800s.
More deadly clothing after the jump…