|Martin Engelbrecht, hand-colored engraving of a dominotière, or maker of brocade |
and printed papers, wearing a dress of wallpaper samples (Germany, 1735–40)
(courtesy Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs, Paris)
Victorians loved opulent design. They also used a lot of arsenic. The toxic substance was used not only to poison vermin, but also for dyes, paints, cosmetics and wallpaper. In 1834, Britain produced 1,222,753 rolls of wallpaper; that number rose by 2,615% to 32,000,000 rolls in 1874. Victorian wallpaper released flakes of arsenic into the air and, under damp conditions, produced arsenical gas. Reports of wallpaper poisoning were shared in medical literature in the late 1850s but it wasn’t until the Factory Workshop Acts of 1883 and 1895 that Parliament instituted regulations for conditions in factories where workers were exposed to arsenic.
Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home, a new book by Lucinda Hawksley, chronicles the rise of poisonous pigments in the British wallpaper trade.