I would like to share an article by Haniya Rae from The Atlantic here with you, which was published this October. You can find the following article here, referring to the new book ‘Bitten by Witch Fever‘ by Lucinda Hawksley.
Slightly over a century ago, poison was a common part of everyday life. Arsenic, the notorious metalloid, was used in all sorts of products, primarily in the inks and aniline dyes of beautifully printed wallpapers and clothing. Odorless and colorless, it went into food as food coloring, and it was used in beauty products, such as arsenic complexion wafers that promised women pure white skin, until as late as the 1920s. It was found in the fabric of baby carriages, plant fertilizers, medicines. It even was taken as a libido pill in Austria.
Using Morris’s phrase as a fitting title, the art historian and Victorianist Lucinda Hawksley’s new book, Bitten by Witch Fever, tells the story of the extensive use of arsenic in the 19th century. It includes pictures of objects and artworks made from substances that incorporated arsenic, and advertisements for arsenic-filled products for Victorian women, such as soap with a doctor’s certificate to ensure its harmlessness.I spoke to Hawksley about arsenic’s prevalence in 19th-century home decoration, clothing, food, and topsoil. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rae: By the late Victorian period, though, people had started to figure out it was dangerous?Hawksley: Around the 1860s, the cases of arsenic poisoning started getting to the newspapers. One wallpaper manufacturer debuted arsenic-free wallpaper, but no one paid much attention to that, until more and more cases started appearing. By the 1870s, William Morris started to produce arsenic-free wallpapers. At this point, William Morris himself didn’t actually believe that the arsenic was the problem—he was simply bowing to public pressure. He thought because no one was ill in his house from the arsenic wallpaper, it must be something else that was causing the sickness.
Hawksley: In 1903 century, the U.K. actually did pass legislation about the safe levels of arsenic levels in food and drink—even though often there are no safe levels at all—but Britain never passed laws around wallpaper or paint. By the time the regulations were passed on arsenic in food and drink, arsenic wallpaper and paint had fallen out of fashion, so it’s possible they didn’t see a reason to actually pass legislation against it. To this day, there still isn’t a law banning someone from making arsenic wallpaper or dye in Britain.Rae: But it was pretty bad before that point?Hawksley: Before legislation was passed, bakers used arsenic green as a popular food coloring. Sometimes, a baker was given flour or sugar with arsenic in it unknowingly, but other times it was used as a bulking agent. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things that were put into Victorian foods as bulking agents. It wasn’t just arsenic, there were lots of weird things. Flour was expensive, so they would resort to adding other things.There was an orphanage in Boston and all these small children were getting really, really sick and they didn’t know why. It turned out that the nurses were wearing blue uniforms dyed with arsenic and they were cradling the children, who in turn were inhaling the dye particles.That’s another thing, too: Green was a color that was always seen as the culprit, simply because it was so desirable at the time, but many other colors used arsenic as well. When the National Archives did testing on the William Morris wallpapers, all of the colors used arsenic to some extent. These colors were exceptionally beautiful, and up until this point, it was not something they could achieve without the use of arsenic.Rae: Are there still remnants of arsenic mining today?Hawksley: It’s funny because as I was doing my research, I was having a conversation with an older woman about my work. She had memories of growing up in the 1930s near a town that had had a working copper mine nearby. Her mother had told her not to grow any vegetables, because at that time they had realized the dangers of arsenic dust and knew it was in the soil. But for a long time, people living near copper mines had no idea that arsenic dust was falling on the soil, and so their crops would absorb all this arsenic dust. Lots of people were getting sick, but no one seemed to understand why. I’m sure that must have been the case with mining like this all over the world.