10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day

The arsenic in women’s clothes gave off a fine dust when it rubbed against anything, allowing anyone nearby to inhale the poison. National Geographic


Arsenic wasn’t used just to create pale skin. When used in dyes it creates a bright, vivid shade of green, a popular color among the Victorians. Dresses, gloves, shoes, and ornamentals to decorate the hair all contained liberal amounts of arsenic if the shade of green was desired. It may be that the addictive qualities of arsenic contributed to the long popularity of the shade among Victorian women. It wasn’t only in clothes either, wallpaper, drapes, rugs, linens, towels, and other items contained large amounts of the poison.

According to the British Medical Journal edition of February 15, 1862, “…twenty yards…of green tarlatane (a fashionable fabric) would contain about 900 grains of white arsenic. Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature.” Some European countries banned the shade produced by arsenic, notably France, known for being a fashion leader. Britain did not, at least not right away.

The wearer of materials made with arsenic was not only endangering themselves, as well as whomever handled the materials for cleaning, pressing, or tailoring. Manufacturers were exposed to the poison in copious amounts as part of their job. During the Victorian Age the use of artificial flowers for display and for women’s hats and other decorative devices grew, and many were dusted with arsenic powder during the manufacturing process, leading the workers to inhale arsenic dust until it often reached fatal levels.

Public outcry from workers forced exposure of arsenic dangers, and supporting medical and social reformers were not enough to turn public opinion in Britain away from the use of arsenic based dyes and products. Not until synthetic dyes which replicated the color produced by arsenic were introduced did its use begin to wane.

According to the above referenced edition of the British Medical Journal, a hair wreath of fifty green leaves made with arsenic carried an amount of the poison sufficient to poison the lady who wore it “…and nineteen friends.” Maybe the sheer prevalence of the poison created the complacency. “We have of late years,” wrote the British Medical Journal, “taken to the surrounding ourselves with arsenic in our dwellings.” Perhaps the thought was one more dress won’t make any difference.