Arsenic Dresses and Mercury Hats – the Pleasures and Perils of Dress

Arsenic Dresses and Mercury Hats - the Pleasures and Perils of Dress

Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century opens on June 18 at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. I’d love to go and see it in person but I’ll have to be content with reading the interesting articles online about this exhibit and on the general subject of ‘Deadly fashion’. As a textile artist I’m more interested in the backstory of the clothing and this exhibition notes the importance of the raw materials, the manufacturing process and the piece workers that created the garments rather than purely concentrating on the wearer and the finished object.

Clothes were dyed with emerald green arsenic dyes.

The following is from Webexhibits: Pigments through the Ages

Brief description of Emerald green:
It’s a poisonous copper-acetoarsenite developed in an attempt to improve Scheele’s green in 1808 and commercially availble from 1814. This became known in England as emerald green, and for a time it was the finest green pigment known, rapidly displacing Scheele’s green.Unusually it has a brilliant blue-green to green colour with fair hiding power. Unfotunately, it is also chemically not stable and very poisonous and therefore was used just until ealry 1900s. Because it was quite cheap to manufacture, emerald green was used not only as an artist’s paint but as a household paint: it was widely used on patterned wallpaper. This made damp rooms death traps, and in the 1860s the British Times newspaper expressed alarm about the possibility that young children were being killed by the deadly fumes emanating from their bedroom walls. It is believed that Napoleon’s death in exile on St Helena was hastened this way. It can be seen more in watercolour medium particularly sea and landscapes.

Unfortunately, it was not just wallpapers that were dyed green with arsenic based emerald green— clothes were. The Times newspaper asked “What manufactured article in these days of high-pressure civilization can possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous” following a revelation that high levels of arsenic were found in socks. Medical reports of ill effects of arsenic green dresses abounded. The picture shows an 1848 fashion plate from La Mode where the dress was probably dyed with arsenic green as it is the ink for the stamp, a copper-arsenic salt.

arsenic fashion plate

Apparently in the 18th and 19th centuries Mercury was used in the manufacture of felt and workers absorbed trace amounts which built up over time causing dementia…hence the term “Mad as a Hatter”.

fashion victim shoesmad hatter


About morwennacatt

Artist / designer / illustrator
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