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A Dark History of Arsenic Greens

Based on the history of Scheele's green and Emerald green. The synthetic green that was too deadly to have near anyone. With green wallpaper being linked to the death of an exiled emperor.

This is colour is deadly. This is about the deadly history of Emerald Green and Scheele’s Green. Emerald and Scheele’s green was invented as a synthetic colour to use on various merchandise like clothes, toys, foods, wallpaper. The colour itself was a bright fluorescent-like green that glowed in the sunlight. It was a widely used fashion colour that everyone adapted.

It was developed to replaced most green dyes used at the time. It was to replace organic greens for production like malachite green, verdigris and green earth. The greens produced were lightfast and semi-transparent. The paints were unfortunately not permanent with the hues shifting only a few weeks or months after application. It was cheap and easy to produce.

Arsenic copper greens were common and were well-known for being poisonous. Types of arsenic copper greens are Emerald Green and Scheele’s green. It was popular between the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. Arsenic made bright colours. Very bright colours. It was because of its radiant vibrant appearance that made these types of greens popular. At the time, there was no other colour like these greens. There were many attempts at making greens from the primary formulas of Scheele’s green and Emerald green.

Before the popularity of arsenic green other types of pigments that only contained traces of arsenic used. Orpiment and realgar have traces of arsenic and were used by many people for ages. Orpiment was used for its bright colour and was manipulated by alchemists to transform the pigment in hopes for gold. And realgar means “dust of the cave” in Arabic. It was used in cravings and currently in white flame fireworks. It was known that mishandling these pigments were disastrous for the person.

In the 19th century, people didn’t know the severity of using arsenic. Arsenic/arsenite is carcinogenic and toxic. It has instability when combined with sulphides and other chemical pollutants. At the time, 19th-century researchers were still developing a way to detect arsenic in people for criminal investigations and medical reasonings. One of the methods is called the Marsh test after the scientist who invented the process.

The arsenic green colours would turn black upon exposure to sulphur even if it was airborne. Colours like cadmium yellow, ultramarine and vermilion pigment paints could not be mixed with these colours because it would have turned a deep brown colour.

Scheele’s Green

Scheele’s Green was invented by Karl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775 Sweden. Karl Wilhelm Scheele was a very talented inventor well know for his chemistry works on oxygen and other gases. It was a colour that appeared close to a green apple and light sea green. It was a colour often used and requested by cabin ship painters. It was made of arsenic and was the end result colour of a chemical reaction. It had some instabilities when it was used. The scientific name is copper arsenite. When it was popular, seven tons of Scheele’s green weres being shipped out of England in 1860.

HEX Code #48893F Scheele's Green
HEX Code #48893F Scheele’s Green

Emerald Green

Emerald green was made with the combination of copper and arsenic. This was described as being the most vibrant of colour. This green was invented by George Field. It was produced by the Wilhelm Sattler company in 1814 Germany. The other name of this green is Schweinfurt green or Paris green (depending on the formula.) It was created to be the improved version of Scheele’s green. It was bluer than Scheele’s green. It was described to look like the jewel emerald. This was seen more has the successor to Scheele’s green because it was more stable and durable. It was proven to be more stable in varnish mixtures for artists to use. This scientific name for this green is copper-acetoarsenite.

HEX Code #13864A of EmeraldGreen
HEX Code #13864A of EmeraldGreen
Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman in “The Arsenic Waltz” originally illustrated in Punch magazine in 1862. A commentary about the dangers of Scheele’s green dye.

Poisonous for the Home

This pigment was more opaque and durable than other colours on the market. These were used for house paints, carpets, clothes, printer inks, shoes, hair accessories and artificial flowers. It was also used in detailing and patterns in wallpaper often. The dust from cheaply made wallpaper prints would flake off, making arsenic particles floating in the air. Also, the arsenic fumes that would emit from the production of the arsenic would also release into the air under warm and humid conditions. It started to be known that children and the frail would die in green patterned rooms by rubbing against the walls or play on the carpets. Small animals locked in arsenic green painted rooms were covered in pustules.

There are multiple effects of prolonged arsenic poisonings that happen in polluted environments. Some effects are cardiovascular disease, skin hyperpigmentation, keratoses, neurological problems, and developmental disorders. People around arsenic greens had ulcers in contact areas. Reddish skin and peeling happened on the thin unprotected skin like the lips and nostrils. Many people suffered from nausea, colic, anemia, chest complaints, fatigue and headaches.

There was clothing was heavily dyed in arsenic greens. Muslin ball gowns were very fashionable mid-Victorian era. The green dye on these dresses was just loosely dusted on the powder which would flake off and become airborne.

Other Accounts of Arsenic Greens Causing Problems For People:

  • This was also used as a food dye. Like lead white paint being a part of lead candies, this particular green was used. An example of its use, blancmange for a dinner in London later on three of the dinners died.
  • In Limestone, London four children with green wallpaper covered rooms suffered from diphtheria. A contagious disease that infects mucous membranes of your nose and throat.
  • A woman who bought green dyed gloves with no liner wore her gloves once and ended up with lesions and dye covering her hands staining her fingernails a yellowish colour.
  • On November 20th, 1861, Matilda Scheurer, a 19 year old artificial flower worker died of severe convulsions from severe arsenic poisoning. Her eyes, fingernails and bile were green. Her autopsy showed that she has arsenic in her stomach, lungs and liver.

Napoleon and Green Wallpaper

Most people speculate that Napoleon might have died in a green wallpapered room covered in arsenic.

After the defeat by the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo in Belguim on June 18, 1815. Napoleon made a fatal error of judgement by waiting for the ground of Waterloo to dry mid-day for his troops to continue to across but the opposite side of Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher had enough time to march to Waterloo in the afternoon to join the troops. Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Napoleon decided to leave France in fears of a counter-revolutionary force could go after him. Napoleon was sentenced to be exiled by the British crown to protect his the Rochefort port property.

He was sent to live the rest of his days on the island of St. Helena in 1821. St. Helena was a tiny South Atlantic island that had several servants with him: A valet, a head of household with his wife and child, personal physician and the island Governor Hudson Lowe. The house he stayed until his death was called the Longwood House. The house was formerly owned by the East India Company and was renovated for Napoleon’s stay.

BBC Radio in 1980 discussed the mystery with one of their listeners. They said that they had an ancestor living in St. Helena had torn a piece of the wallpaper in Napoleon’s room as a souvenir. It had small green fleur-de-lis designs on a lighter background. When the wallpaper was analyzed it contained traces of Scheele’s green. His whole house was covered in this wallpaper. His bedroom, kitchen and bathroom were known for being covered in green wallpaper. This was also known to be Napolean’s favourite colour.

It was speculated that the humid air warmed up the house he was living in activating the arsenic-laced room. Napoleon would have been breathing in the arsenic ridden room making him weaker.

When a lock of his hair was analyzed it showed that it contained traces of arsenic. It may have contributed to his other known illness adding to his fatality. Napoleon had stomach cancer with stomach ulcers. He died at age 51.

Mostly Discontinued

“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.”

From The British Medical Journal, article Femme Fatales

There was a movement to stop the sales of arsenic dyed dresses to women in the Victorian age. Female activists and the wealthy women wearing these garments called for research, regulations and restrictions on these products. In Britain, bills were passed to regulate the amount of deadly chemicals that could be sold to a person, Control of Poisons Bill of 1851 and the Arsenic Act of 1868. It was classified as an irritant poison in the 19th century.

The production cost of polluting the environment, visible medical problems, sicken workers and their consumers who were in contact with the dye were the reasons why arsenic greens were falling out of fashion.

The popularity of this type of green started to end in the 1800’s. Several Europe countries started to ban the use of arsenic dyed products, like wallpaper. Prussia prohibited sales of arsenic coloured pigments by the 1830s. Then Bavaria and France around 1845 prohibiting sales as well.

In England and the United States of America banned the dye much later because of their regulations of free enterprises. By 1880, the large home decor manufacturer William Morris discontinued using arsenic greens in their wallpaper collections in the United Kingdom.

Sadly, Scheele knew from the beginning that the colour was bad but marketed it anyway.

Arsenic Greens Rebranded

Paris Green and Malaria

The origins of Paris green came from the pigment being used as a stray to kill the rodents in Parisian sewers. Paris green is the same kind of green like Emerald Green but with different properties. Most insecticides in the early 1900s were blended with lead arsenate. The mixture was known for burning the trees and grass it touched.

Paris green was repurposed to kill flies because of the risk of malaria. There were large amounts given to farmers and soldiers to stray on puddles and other types of still open water. During the WW2 years, Disney released wartime videos explaining the effects of malaria to the lonely farmer and to use Paris green spray to kill files and prevent illnesses from infections and diseases. The short was called The Winged Scourge” in their Disney ’43 series.

It worked for a while on a variety of insects but not only was very poisonous but was ineffective in some mice and rodents and cost. Most environmentally safer insecticides were effective to spray over fruits, vegetables and other plant life.

The use way greatly discontinued and only really small quantities are used in developing countries.

Fireworks

In fireworks assembly and manufacturing the ingredients copper arsenite is used to make fireworks. It creates a blue-green colour when exploded.

By the end of the 19th century, most of the arsenic greens that were used were replaced with copper carbonate. Also, in popular culture in films when there is an evil alien attack leaving behind a toxic sludge, looks similar old Emerald green paint. Also, in the 2005 documentary, Signé Chanel share their long standing superstition of “seamstresses don’t like green.” The fears of the colour green came from Coco Chanel’s bad experiences with the dye and the deaths that happened for fashion.

Resources:
Parascandola, John. King of poisons: a history of arsenic. Potomac Books, 2012.
Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art. Getty Museum, 2014.
Baty, Patrick. The anatomy of colour: the story of heritage paints and pigments. Thames & Hudson, 2017.
Jezebel – The Arsenic Dress: How Poisonous Green Pigments Terrorized Victorian Fashion
Global Healing Center – The Health Dangers of Arsenic Toxicity
Racked – The History of Green Dye Is a History of Death
Pigments through the Ages – Emerald green
Some related articles about colours

2 comments on “A Dark History of Arsenic Greens

  1. Fascinating stuff. I had no idea about ANY of this. Thank you for sharing your research.

    Liked by 1 person

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