Dressed To Kill in the 19th Century

Nov 26, 2016
central NC

"The Embroidress" by Georg Friedrich Kersting​

St. Patrick’s Day always has me searching my closest for something green to wear so I began to wonder how popular this color was with our Victorian friends. As it turns out, Scheele’s Green and Paris Green were the premier green pigments of the early 19th century. Their bright, rich color was very popular among fashion and interior designers. These colors were used on everything from curtains to candles.

Sadly, this pigment was made from a variety of compounds including copper arsenite. And yes copper arsenite contained arsenic. The factory workers, dyers, and artisans that produced arsenic-infused items frequently suffered from arsenic poisoning. Scheele’s Green was reported to have killed children who ate sweets colored with the dye and it was especially nasty when it was added to flocked wallpaper (a simple technique used to add texture to wallpaper) because it flaked into poisonous dust.

Throughout the 19th century, lurid tales of dresses dyed with the arsenic-infused Paris and Scheele’s Green poisoning people filled magazines and newspapers. However, the toxicity of dye made with emerald green was not initially recognized. It only became known when the recipe was published in 1822. Manufacturers then altered the recipe. They added other ingredients to slightly lighten the color and changed its name. Eventually, the use of this pigment was abandoned entirely when it became well known that people who wore clothes dyed with it tended to die. To this day the French avoid making green theater costumes.


This afternoon dress (circa 1865) is a “Poison Green” dress – one that has been dyed with an arsenic-containing chemical dye.
This poisoned pigment was used in the manufacture of clothing, furniture, carpets, paintings, wallpaper and many other household items until the 1870s. It was then that synthetic green dyes began to replace arsenic, and fewer people were placed in danger by its poisonous gases. Experiments at the end of the 19th century proved that arsenic pigments in damp or rotting wallpaper were lethal. Tests later revealed that four out of five wallpapers produced prior to 1870 contained arsenic.

Source: The Pragmatic Costumer, June 2014

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First Sergeant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Jul 30, 2018
Oh my... From the title I thought you're posting something about early stilettos. :laugh:

I wonder how many people died from the poisonous particles when their wallpapers or curtains were made with arsenic. I'm not a chemist, but inhaling that each day for years must eventually have an effect, especially on children's lungs, no? But even if arsenic didn't kill by itself, in combination with a disease, the already poisoned body just would have had it so much harder to fight the disease.

Northern Light

Lt. Colonel
Forum Host
Jul 21, 2014
Great thread Ellie!
I remember once reading a book that took place in the medieval period. The one character appeared in a dress of "goose t_urd green". For some reason that description stayed with me longer than the name of the book.:O o:

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