This post was inspired by a comment made by mjtierney1 of Airship Flamel.
I had a professor in grad school who analyzed snippets of hair from 19th century hair wreaths. The amount of heavy metals present was amazing. Probably not surprising considering plumbing was made of lead, mercury compounds were used as drugs, and arsenic was a common insecticide.
I am fairly certain Paris Green is the insecticide that he is thinking of. This is an arsenic compound that was also used in artist’s paints, and is highly toxic. It was widely available, and used to spray crops like apples in Europe and America. Another arsenic-based insecticide was London Purple – don’t you love these innocent names?
Then there was Scheele’s Green, one of the most popular and fashionable colours of the Victorian era. It was used in wallpapers and house paints, to dye fabrics, to colour printers ink, to colour candle wax, and even use used to decorate children’s toys and add a delightful green colour to sweets and lollies. It was highly toxic, as it also an arsenic compound. As the pigment broke down, or was burned by a candle, it added arsenic-laden dust to a house. People often died from what was put down to as ‘bad air’. This was why people often recovered with a trip to the country or the ocean for a ‘fresh air’ cure; it worked because they weren’t getting their daily dose of arsenic. Then they came home and sickened again.
Arsenic was a popular as a beauty product. ‘White’ arsenic was rubbed on the skin to improve the complexion, or eaten mixed with vinegar and chalk. No wonder Victorian women were subject to swooning. Tight corsets, poisonous clothes and poisonous cosmetics? No wonder these ladies had arsenic in their hair. It was kind of a miracle if they didn’t.
Mercury was used in the felting process for making hats, particularly fur based hats like beaver or rabbit. The high toxicity of the felting solution, particularly in the mercury vapours created by the felting process, meant that madness was an industrial disease of hatters and milliners. Mercury was also used in the construction of numerous scientific instruments, including thermometers. Mercury and lead are neurotoxins, and accumulate in tissues. The original vermillion pigment was a mercury sulphide compound.
Lead was a popular additive to paint and pigments, even in the early Twentieth century. Lead-based white cosmetics were used by Japanese geishas, actors from around the world, and by Victorian Western women. So, when you add in lead plumbing and lead being used to seal tin cans, the Victorian era had its fair share of lead poisoning.
A toxic environment is a great analogy for use by a Steampunk writer. An unhappy marriage can be mirrored by a bedroom decorated with Scheele’s Green. A malicious person might wear a coat dyed the same colour. A poisonous gossip might use a poisonous cosmetic, to lamp-shade how nasty she or he really is. As well, it might be used to point out the more poisonous aspects of the society and culture.
And if you are writing a Steampunk mystery … I’ve just given you some lovely alibis!