A Toxic Environment: living in the Victorian era – A Steampunk Perspective

Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting

Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting – displaying the popularity of Scheele’s Green

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!



Filed under Analogy, Characterization, History, Science, Setting, Steampunk

14 responses to “A Toxic Environment: living in the Victorian era – A Steampunk Perspective

  1. I lived in a house that was built in 1915, and my parents warned me, as a child about lead paint! There are still lots of houses in the world that have lead paint etc in the buildings. So people beware of old buildings that could have a nasty bite, and that does not include any Ghosts! (grin!)

    • I have lived in several old Queenslanders, and know that a very important part of any renovation is wearing breathing protection when you are sanding back paint. No one wants a dose of heavy metal poisoning. Or paint-coloured snot for that matter.

  2. That’s fascinating, in a terribly macabre way. In particular the beautiful names for horrible things – the contrast adds to the impact.

  3. Glad I could be an inspiration! 😉

    I had forgotten about the arsenic-based face powder to get that pale cadaverous look so popular in Victorian times.

    Chromated copper arsenate was used to treat lumber for soil contact in the States until 2003, so it’s not only old houses that can be toxic!

  4. Reblogged this on The Writers Room and commented:

  5. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    I am about to post an article about Arsenic Poisoning in 1889. I thought it might be a good idea to re-blog this article for some background.

  6. Very interesting. I was especially enthralled by the process for making hats (I am a hat lover!) This give a whole new meaning to the phrase “mad hatter”.

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