There have been many examples throughout history of people using technology and materials that inevitably proved to be less than safe. From the lead pipes of ancient Rome to the asbestos of the twentieth century, people seem to have often lived alongside dangerous materials in their everyday lives. It was the Victorians, though, that unknowingly took to this kind of chemical self-sabotage with an almost unmatched zeal. If there was a potentially poisonous way of doing something, they would undoubtedly dabble in it.
A modern and safe representation of this shockingly widespread phenomenon can be seen within the walls of Craigdarroch Castle, though maybe not where people expect to find it. While most of the house is done in woodwork and more subdued reds and browns, when stepping onto the third floor, one of the bedrooms sticks out due to its rather lurid bright green colour. The most popular shade of green for more than a hundred years was “Scheele’s green”.
Invented in 1775, the most popular hue of green for more than a hundred years was called ‘Scheele’s Green,’ a copper and arsenic combination that created a particularly bright and unique shade of green. While the materials used to make paint are not always safe for humans, the chemicals used to create this green shade in the Victorian era were quite deadly when handled without proper protective gear or any kind of safety measures.
The main issue that came with its use was that many people at the time thought the poisons in the paint would no longer be dangerous once it had properly dried on the walls. This, however, was proven to not be the case at all. The arsenic from the solution tended to drift. Wallpapers and paints using this colour would eventually mold, flake into the air, get into the lungs of those exposed, and cause a great deal of internal health problems. But this colour wasn’t just reserved for paints and wall coverings — all kinds of goods and materials were coloured with ‘Scheele’s Green’. The arsenic paint made it into a lot of everyday items such as clothing, children’s toys and even foods, things that most Victorians wouldn’t have thought twice about handling carelessly.
Despite its rather unfortunate composition, the vibrant look of it was remarkable and highly desired when compared to the most pastel colours that organic dyes typically produced. As far as we know, the deadly nature of this decorative choice never affected the Dunsmuirs in the Castle, but it was still a very common occurrence among Victorians who just wanted a splash of colour in their parlour spaces.
The most troubling part of ‘Scheele’s Green’ history was the public’s often ignorant insistence on continuing to use the colouring, despite medical experts’ widely reported effects of arsenic on humans. Arsenic was a common poison in Victorian households, often used for killing rodents and bugs. Many people, such as the designed William Morris, simply refused to admit it was having the same effect in the paints and dyes they were often using as it did on the animals and bugs they were exterminating in their homes. Morris went so far as to say, “As to the arsenic scare, a great folly is it hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever”. Despite this rather strong opinion, the evidence of its harm continued to mount.
For example, in London, Dr Thomas Orton made notes while attempting to save a family who were sick with a mystery illness that there was a possibility the green paint on the walls of the family home was ultimately to blame. Cases of blisters breaking out on the hands of women buying gloves rose, as the colour was not sealed into the fabric of the gloves but was instead just painted on and it would rub off if their hands began to sweat, exposing them to the dangerous substance. The most severe cases of injuries were in the factories where the colouring was being produced and used. The workers there, most often young girls, had a distressingly high mortality rate, and experienced truly terrible side effects. As recently as 1917, there were mentions in a report by the US bureau of statistics regarding the production of ‘Scheele’s Green’ stating “considerable illness has been found to exist among many of the workers in th[e] production, due in measure to lack of knowledge on the part of those engaged in its preparation and disregard for the extreme poisonous qualities which this salt possesses”. By then, though, the colour was no longer as desirable for decoration, and was instead being used primarily as an insecticide.
Despite the clear risks, ‘Scheele’s Green’ remained one of the most popular colours throughout the nineteenth century. Eventually a safer method of producing the colour green was found, which us ‘cobalt green’ which came with far fewer side effects and became the shade of choice for those looking to add some pops of greenery to their decor and fashion. Still, it is another interesting and unexpected hazard of Victorian styles, remnants of which can still be found all around the world, including here at Craigdarroch Castle, though without the deadly side effects, of course.
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