Arsenic and New Lace

The creation of new pigments and chemical dyes revolutionized fashion. New colors were brighter and more colorfast than earlier natural dyes. Artificially dyed greens, particularly the shade known as Scheele’s green, were among the most popular colors in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, the source for these new, vibrant greens was arsenic.

Arsenic waltz - cartoon of one well-dressed skeleton asking another to dance

 Horror stories of girls poisoned by their dresses added a morbid angle to moralizers’ complaints about the young and fashionable.  

As author Alison Matthew David discusses in her 2015 book Fashion Victims, this April 1862 Punch cartoon, “The Arsenic Waltz,” associates deadly vanity with the scandalous new dance, the waltz!

Fashion plate of green morning walking dress circa 1812The artist who hand-colored the originals of the fashion plates featured in this exhibit would have been on trend when choosing shades of green for these outfits.  Sadly, the artist would also have been at risk. Arsenical pigments were also used in paints and paper goods.

Arsenic exposure had devastating, sometimes fatal, health effects on the artists, seamstresses, florists, milliners and factory workers who worked with the pigments.

Cover for book The Green of the PeriodUncover more in The Green of the Period: or The Unsuspected Foe in the Englishman's Home (1869), a fictionalized account of the dangers of the "green which our perverted tastes consider brilliant and beautiful, but which we should all shun if the veil were lifted and its character exposed. "

 Eventually, governments began to regulate goods containing arsenic to protect both workers and consumers.   In 1900, after fourteen years of effort by the State Board of Health, Massachusetts passed a law to limit the manufacture and sale of items containing arsenic.  

Massachusetts Act relative to manufacturing textiles with arsenic, ca. 1900

Many fashion-related industries were on the Board’s list for investigation, including makers of buttons and dress goods; clothing; cotton goods; hosiery and knit goods; silk and silk goods; and woolen goods and worsted goods.  -“The Massachusetts Arsenic Law” The Sanitarian, vol. 45, no. 371, October 1900, 322, 323.