A Little History of Arsenic Green

There is no doubt that green is one of the more alluring, interesting, and complex colors of fashion through the ages. There are many myths around various greens and their toxicities, but as with most mythology there is a little kernel of truth.

With the release of the “Endora” Victorian/Edwardian Witch Shoes, it seems quite fitting to talk about the poisonous greens of the 19th century. We chose a {non-toxic!} green color for Endora that is close to the famous Scheele’s Green, a yellowish-green pigment invented in 1775 and made from sodium carbonate and arsenious oxide – AKA, “arsenic green.”

There were many new, chemically-created hues available in the Victorian period, and these bright and bold colors were all the rage. Scheele’s green, Magdela red, Perkin’s mauve, Verguin’s fuchine, Martius yellow, and Paris green were just a few. Not all dyes were made from the same compounds. The arsenic dyes pre-date the aniline dyes by about 75 years and were indeed known to be dangerous, but lack of definitive evidence and consumer demand kept these colors widely available for all of the 19th century and into the 20th.

Though the Met website does not make a note of this American gown being dyed with Scheele’s green or Paris green, the vibrant yellow-green color, visible instability with the fading, and the 1868 date indicate this gown may poisonous.
DANGER: This 1865-1868 gown from Toronto Metropolitan University Fashion Research Collection apparently has tested positive for arsenic.

Prior to Carl Wilhelm Scheele’s 1775 arsenic-derived pigment, green fabrics were notoriously difficult to create. Textiles were dyed yellow first, using turmeric or dyer’s weld, then over-dyed with blue from woad or indigo. Consistency from batch to batch was tricky, and the resulting fabric was expensive. Green garments pre-dating the common availability of arsenic greens were statements of wealth.

SAFE: This 1775 gown is made from an earlier silk, c. 1743-45. Its rich green color pre-dates arsenic dyes, and the fabric would have been very expensive. The Met.
SAFE: Portrait of Anne Crofts by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1630s, in a green silk gown, the textile double-dyed to achieve this shade.
SAFE: Portrait of Laura Gonzaga by Lavinia Fontana, 16th century Italy. There is no doubt this ensemble was *expensive* with green and gold woven together.

There were two well-known arsenic-based greens ubiquitous in the 19th century: Scheele’s green and Paris green. Scheele’s, also called Schloss green, was a yellowish-green color and quite unstable, easily fading or oxidizing. Paris green, a deeper, more emerald color, was invented in 1814 to improve on Scheele’s green. It was longer lasting, but both pigments degraded with moisture and became arsine gas. With Scheele’s and Paris greens being used in everything from wallpaper, paint, candles, food coloring, toys, and, of course, fabrics, it’s easy to understand reported ongoing 19th century illness (in addition to so many, many other things like…asbestos.)

DANGER: 1840s Silk Satin Booties in typical Paris Green. These shoe tested positive for arsenic. Bata Shoe Museum.
1859 illustration in a French medical journal showing the effect of arsenic dye exposure on hands.

By the mid 1860s, new synthetic dyes were widely available. These dyes were derived from coal tar, which were only a marginal improvement over the toxicity of arsenic, but still posed health risks. It was not until after WWI that truly safe and stable green dyes came to be, the eerie result of advancement in chemical weapons technology during the Great War.

SAFE: As historically-accurate as we try to be, all our pigmented leathers are modern and safe!

p.s. If you have green antique clothing dating between 1775 and 1920, handle with care. Not all green garments are dyed with arsenic or coal tar-based dyes, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Remember that arsenic dyes turn into poisonous gas when exposed to moisture. If in doubt, test it.


Sources
Sheele’s Green – Wikipedia
Paris Green – Wikipedia
“Aniline Dyes,” Fashion History Timeline, Fashion Institute of Technology
“An Update on Arsenic Green: When the World was Dying for Color,” Lidia Plaza, Maryland Center for History and Culture
“#MuseumLife: Testing Artifacts for Hazardous Materials,” Museum Chat: The Official Blog of the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre

3 Comments

  • Ginny

    June 18, 2022 at 9:34 AM

    I love arsenic green, but it is always so interesting and a little shocking to learn what incredibly dangerous things were used for beauty and fashion.

    Reply
  • Blake Gripling

    February 4, 2024 at 9:11 PM

    Perhaps most infamously, the wallpaper used on Napoleon’s house during his exile in St. Helena was found to be laced with Scheele’s Green and was thus implicated for Napoleon’s death.

    Dr. Robert Kedzie also had the balls to come up with a book entitled “Shadows from the Walls of Death” which was basically made up of literal samples from arsenical wallpaper, so much so that most of the libraries who had the book destroyed their copies due to obvious health concerns.

    Reply

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