Since twenty yards of fabric were required for a ballgown’s crinolines, a debutante wearing such a gown would arrive at a ball sporting more than 1,000 grains of arsenic.
She was dressed to kill. Literally.
In his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play, author James C. Whorton tells of a London physician who analyzed a sample of green muslin intended for a ballgown and found that it contained more than sixty grains of arsenic-based Sheele’s green pigment per yard, “so loosely incorporated into the fabric that it could be dusted out with great facility.” Since twenty yards of fabric were required for a ballgown’s crinolines, a debutante wearing such a gown would arrive at a ball sporting more than 1,000 grains of arsenic, enough to “slay the whole of the admirers she may meet within half-a-dozen ballrooms.”
In the Victorian era, Scheele’s green was all the rage. Invented in 1775, it was a brilliant and durable pigment that quickly replaced older green pigments made from copper carbonate. Found in paints, dyes, food coloring, paper, and textiles, Scheele’s (sometimes called Schloss green) was incorporated into wallpaper, children’s toys, ceramics, women’s fashions, cosmetics, food, and patent medicines. One 19th century wallpaper manufacturer estimated that over 100 million square miles of paper colored with Scheele’s Green could be found throughout Britain; another said that demand for the color was so high that he was using up to two tons of the pigment per week. Queen Victoria papered her palace walls with the color (until her guests complained of illness). Napoleon Bonaparte is believed to have been slowly poisoned by the green wallpaper in his rooms.
During the Industrial Revolution, arsenic was cheap and plentiful. It was a by-product of copper, gold, and zinc mining. A penny could buy half an ounce – enough to kill fifty people. It was used in a wide range of industrial applications, from hardening alloys to pesticides. In sufficient quantity, arsenic was deadly no matter how it was taken into the body: ingested, breathed, or absorbed through the skin. A deadly dose could be taken all at once, or accumulate over time. Artisans and laborers who worked daily with the substance lived short lives.
That arsenic was poison was commonly known in the 19th Century. But, it was also believed that when taken in small doses arsenic had health benefits.
That arsenic was poison was commonly known in the 19th Century. But, it was also believed that when taken in small doses arsenic had health benefits. Charles Darwin treated his eczema with it; Dr. Livingstone (the famed African explorer) treated tsetse fly bites with it; and British forces in India used an arsenic and black pepper compound as anti-venom. Victorian era physicians prescribed arsenic compounds to treat asthma, rheumatism, worms, morning sickness, and to increase sexual prowess.
Do Victorian antiques pose an arsenic hazard to modern collectors? They might. Worse, arsenic isn’t the only toxic substance found in antiques, and many 20th Century collectibles contain toxic substances as well. Will these substances kill you? Probably not, but they might make you sick. If you feel ill after a day antiquing or visiting museums, and your symptoms persist, see a doctor.
What sort of antiques may pose a toxicity hazard? Here are a few, gleaned from the Oklahoma Museums Association Field Advisory Service Technical Bulletin #9 titled “Arsenic, Old Lace, and Stuffed Owls May Be Dangerous to Your Health: Hazards in Museum Collections.“
The Bulletin offers a list of thirteen toxic substances that are commonly found in antiques along with handling precautions including:
- Textiles, ceramics, painted objects, baskets, feathers, and fur.
- Taxidermy specimens.
- Green cloth book covers.
- Silver or gold-plated objects. The plating itself may contain cyanide, or the item may have previously been cleaned with a cyanide solution.
- Printer’s ink: paper products may have been imprinted with ink containing cyanide.
- Silvered mirror backings.
- Artworks: many artist’s pigments were stabilized with mercury compounds.
- Art canvas: mercury was sometimes used to mildew-proof art canvas.
Another useful guide titled “Hazardous Materials in Your Collection” has been published by the U.S National Park Service. Again, the list below is not comprehensive; refer to the original bulletin for details. The NPS recommends caution when handling collections of:
- “Glow in the dark” items such as clocks, instrument panels, statuary, and other items may have been made to glow using radium.
- Ethnographic artifacts.
- Firearms, armament, and edged weapons may contain traces of blood or other biological contaminants.
- Film, which emits nitrogen oxide gases as it ages.
- Medical equipment may contain traces of pathogens or body fluids.
Both the Oklahoma and the NPS bulletins contain recommendations for safe handling of potentially hazardous collectibles. Most of the suggestions are common sense:
- When handling dusty or flaking objects, wear a dust mask.
- Keep rooms well ventilated when cleaning with solvents.
- Wear appropriate gloves and clothing.
- Keep tetanus shots up-to-date.
- Be aware of personal hygiene: don’t eat, drink, lick fingers, scratch, or smoke while cleaning any collectible item. Pathogens are more easily absorbed through the body’s mucus membranes.
- Do not steam-strip decorative paper from walls or trunk interiors; toxins will vaporize, become airborne, and be more easily assimilated.
Unfortunately, yesterday’s toxins have been replaced with modern hazards. It’s easy to blame “toxicity” on industrial chemicals, but most of the toxins found in consumer products derive from natural sources. Native American and other ethnographic artifacts were toxic to humans even 1,000 years ago. What does that mean for today’s collectors? Simply this: be careful; exercise caution. But, have fun. Enjoy your hobby.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s website at resaleretailing.com or visit Wayne’s blog.
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