Lily Absinthe Looks at Arsenic…


From the “Fashion Victims” exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum.

Recently, an exhibition titled “Fashion Victims” opened at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada. While the exhibition itself was somewhat sensationalist in presentation, aimed at drawing in a modern audience with little knowledge of the period, the subject matter is deadly serious and this is especially true in the way clothes and accessories were manufactured.

As it has been noted by scores of commentators, the 19th Century was a time of vast technological change as the Industrial Revolution grew with increasing intensity, leaving no area of society untouched to include fashion and costume. One area of costume that was especially affected was in the development of synthetic color dyes whose colors were stronger and more intense than their natural counterparts. Combined with this, synthetic dyes maintained their hue and were fade resistant.

As noted in a previous blog post, the synthetic dye industry, or more properly aniline dye industry, was launched in 1856 with the chance discovery of Mauvein by William Henry Perkin.  Mauvein was a hit with the public and demand sky-rocketed. The prime attraction was the color’s intensity, an intensity that was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with natural dyes. Besides being inexpensive, Mauvein showed up well inside candlelight and gaslight rooms as well as outside in the gloomy atmosphere of most of the larger cities due to the smoke from the increasing amount of factories.

Subsequently, the range of colors was progressively expanded at a rapid speed and the market responded positively. One such color was that of a shade of emerald green known as “Paris Green” or emerald green. Although not an aniline dye, Paris Green was became popular as a color because of it’s striking hue and intensity and this carried over into the fashion realm, facilitated by the developments of new methods of manufacturing inexpensive textiles.

Technically known as copper(II) acetate triarsenite, Paris Green was originally developed in 1814 in an attempt to improve an earlier formula known as Scheele’s Green, which wasn’t as durable. The color of Paris Green is ranges from a pale vivid, blue-green when very finely ground, to a deeper true green when coarsely ground.


Paris Green was a pigment which in turn was used as coloring for a variety of products to include artificial flower stationary, greeting cards, wall paper, various hanging paper items, dye in candle wax, pigment for artists’ paints, the paint on children’s toys, and even food coloring (yes, food coloring- believe it or not). It was only inevitable that Paris Green would also show up as a fabric dye as the public demanded fabrics with bright colors and hues. Also, the advent of Paris Green also provided a way for mining companies to dispose of the large amounts of arsenic residue, a by-product of mining processes and make some money at the same time.


Paris Green was also used as rat poison and later developed as a powerful insecticide in 1867, often being combined with lead arsenate and used on food crops. Even into the 1940s Paris Green was being used for mosquito abatement.



Paris Green pigment by Sherwin-Williams


However, arsenic is also a very powerful poison. For example, when used in wallpaper, it had a tendency to emit toxic fumes, a phenomena that was well-documented during the period to include Queen Victoria ordering the removal of all paris Green wallpaper from Buckingham Palace in 1879.

In terms of costume, often the dye was so unstable that the arsenic would often separate from the fabric, creating a fine powder mist if disturbed (such as the motion of the wearer walking or brushing against an object or another person. This problem was well known even back in the 19th Century as evidenced by the following extract from The Fourth Annual Report of the State Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity of Massachusetts (1883):

Attention has very frequently been called to the presence of large amounts of arsenic in green tarlatan, which has given rise so many times to dangerous symptoms of poisoning when made into dresses and worn, so that it is very rare now to see a green tarlatan dress.

This fabric is still used, however, to a very dangerous ex
tent, chiefly for the purposes of ornamentation, and may
often be seen embellishing the walls and tables at church and society fairs, and in confectionery, toy and dry-goods stores.

The writer has repeatedly seen this poisonous fabric used at
church fairs and picnics as a covering for confectionery and
food, to protect the latter from flies. As is well known, the
arsenical pigment is so loosely applied to the cloth that a
portion of it easily separates upon the slightest motion.

The use of arsenic in dye pigments was pervasive but it was not restricted to just the color green. The report continues:

…after examining a large number of specimens estimated that twenty or thirty grains of the pigment would separate from a dress per hour, when worn in a ball-room.
But green tarlatan is not the only fabric which contains
arsenic. We find arsenic sometimes in other substances
used in making articles of wearing apparel, usually in the
form of arsenical pigments. The writer detected a large
amount of arsenic in a specimen of cloth known as ” Foulard cambric,” which had been made into a dress ; after
wearing the dress a short time severe conjunctivitis was pro
duced, together with nasal catarrh, pharyngitis, and symp
toms of gastric irritation.

The pattern of the dress consisted of alternate stripes of light-blue and navy-blue, and contained 0.291 grm. per square meter. Conjunctivitis has also been recorded from wearing of “tulle” dresses. A pustular eruption upon the neck and arms was caused by ‘a splendid dark-green dress, trimmed with light-green leaves,’ obtained ‘from a well-known Parisian atelier’; the dress was found to contain ‘a large percentage of arsenic.

Probably the worst afflicted were those whose occupations involved the manufacture of various items utilizing Paris Green and other arsenic-based compounds. Below is a picture from an 1859 medical journal documenting the affects to the hands damaged by prolonged exposure to arsenic dyes:


So, after this somewhat technical lead-in, do any of these items exist today? Well, yes they do!

Arsenic Dress1

Dress, English or French, c. 1860 – 1865; Collection of Glennis Murphy

Afternnon Dress 1865

Afternoon Dress, American (?), c. 1865; Fashion Institute of Technology, New York (P88.43.1)


But is wasn’t all dresses…


“Adelaide” satin boots colored with an arsenic-based dye, European, c. 1840s; Bata Shoe Museum


Flower wreaths were dyed with arsenic-based dyes.

The above is a small sample of what was out there during the 19th Century. Interestingly enough, in terms of clothing most of the offending costume and accessories date from the mid 19th Century. However, arsenic-laden wallpapers continued even into the 20th Century. The surviving examples on display are handled with the utmost care because of the their toxicity. When combined with deterioration due to age (and especially in the case of shattered silk), these items still maintain a deadly legacy.


And for a little dark humor…from Punch Magazine, 1860.

Looking back from 2015, it’s easy to be smug about this. The effects of arsenic poisoning were well understood during the 19th Century yet they were ignored for the most part and regulatory efforts were sporadic and ineffective and little was done in spite of the known consequences. The history of arsenic and Paris Green remains a cautionary tale: often we want the new and novel but fail to think about the potential consequences.

3 thoughts on “Lily Absinthe Looks at Arsenic…

  1. Pingback: Lily Absinthe & Movie Costumes, Part I | Lily Absinthe

    • I’m not sure of specific dosages but some of the literature suggests that roughly 130mg is a lethal dose. The toxicity in clothing items would be more along the lines of prolonged exposure over a period of time. I think that sometimes the hazard factor is a bit overstated for sensationalist purposes and I think that arsenic presents more of a hazard today to people handling these items than it was back then. But that’s just my take on it.

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