In 1814, a company in Schweinfurt, Germany, called the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company developed a new green dye. It was brighter than most traditional green dyes. It was bolder. The shade was so jewel-like that it quickly began being called “emerald green.” And women loved it. Largely because it was during this time that gas lighting, rather than candlelight, was being introduced. When women went out to parties at night, the rooms were considerably brighter than they had been only a few decades before. These party-goers wanted to make sure they were wearing gowns that stood out boldly — gowns in a shade like emerald green. People also began using it for wallpaper and carpeting. Victorian Britain was said to be “bathed in… green.”
Unfortunately, the reason that dye was so striking is that it was made with arsenic.
The effects of arsenic exposure are horrific. In addition to being deadly, it produces ulcers all over the skin. Those who come in close contact with it might develop scabs and sores wherever it touched. It can also make your hair fall out, and can cause people to vomit blood before shutting down their livers and kidneys.
And if you think the effects were terrifying for the people who merely brushed against these fabrics, wait until you hear what happened to the women who manufactured them, working with the dye every day. Matilda Scheurer, a 19-year-old woman who applied the arsenic green dye to fake flowers, died in a way that horrified the populace in 1861. She threw up green vomit, the whites of her eyes turned green, and when she died, she claimed that “everything she looked at was green.” When people began investigating such workshops, they found other women in similar distress, like one “who had been kept on [working with] green… till her face was one mass of sores.”
And doctors knew this was happening. They began talking about the “great deal of slow poisoning going on in Great Britain” as early as 1857. Before long, illustrations were being run in newspapers depicting skeletons dancing in green dresses. The Times pondered, following a case where arsenic poisoning was spread through socks, “What manufactured article in these days of high-pressure civilization can possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous?” I mean, to be honest, the ones that were not green. Those were the ones that could be trusted.
The Victorian slang for an attractive person — “killing” — even took on new meaning, with the British Medical Journal remarking: “Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature. She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.”
You would think that these stories would have caused people to immediately stop wearing the color, but, of course, they didn’t. Consumers throughout history have engaged in all manner of wildly unhealthy behaviors for the sake of fashion. And production of the color was a huge industry! So for years, some people were willing to put up with these grotesque deaths if the alternative was muted shades, or, as one proponent of green dye described them, “abominable grays, hideous browns, and dreadful yellows.”
Some people tried to tell themselves that they’d be safe provided they did not lick the fabric or wallpaper, which was, unfortunately, not true. Others claimed that the doctors were simply lying, because some people will always believe that science is just not real. All this in spite of the fact that every Victorian household probably had a jar of arsenic to poison rats, so they knew it was poisonous.
Of course this sort of thing was happening to American workers all the time. Bringing this back would truly MAGA!