Wallpaper might be an interior design trend that is coming back into style, but no matter how big it gets, wallpaper will never be as popular as it was in England in the 19th century. In fact, it’s fair to say that during the Victorian era, Great Britain went wallpaper mad. Between 1834 and 1874, sales of wallpaper rose by more than 2,600%, resulting in more than 32 million rolls being sold every year. From the lower middle class to Buckingham Palace, everyone was covering their walls in garishly colorful rolls.
The technical innovation that gave rise to England’s wallpaper fever? Arsenic. Or, rather, arsenic-based pigments that had suddenly made uniquely colorful wallpapers not just possible, but affordable to almost anyone. But such wallpapers could come at a far deeper cost than money: vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, and even death. No one knows for certain how many people died because of arsenic poisoning in wallpaper, but thousands of possible cases were reported. A new book from Thames & Hudson, Bitten by Witch Fever, examines the uniquely beautiful–and uniquely deadly–wallpaper designs of the 19th century.
The title of the book comes from a quote from William Morris, a wallpaper design titan who once famously remarked that the doctors who were blaming the sudden wave of arsenic-related deaths on wallpaper were “bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.” In other words, fear of wallpaper was just another witch hunt.
As one of the major producers of arsenic-based wallpapers in the country, on the surface, Morris had motive to be dismissive. In addition, his family copper mine, Devon Great Consols, was a producer of arsenic. But Morris was also a social activist who was greatly concerned with the well-being of the poor. “He paid his employees incredibly fair wages,” says the book’s author, art historian Lucinda Hawksley (who is also Charles Dickens’s great-great-great-grandaughter, so she knows something about the contradictions of the Victorian age). “His factories were incredibly bright and well-ventilated, a model for their time, and his employees all loved him. It seems strange that he was so dismissive of what arsenic was doing to his employees and his customers.”
This sort of cognitive dissonance, says Hawksley, wasn’t uncommon for the age. People knew arsenic was poisonous–it was a common ingredient in rat poison at the time–but they thought that if they didn’t actually lick their wallpaper, they’d be fine. Tales of wallpaper-related deaths were a shame, true. One particularly ghastly incident occurred in 1862 when four children in East London died after tearing down their home’s arsenic green wallpaper to lick it. But these deaths were for a long time viewed as anomalies. People used arsenic to dye their dresses and the flowers in their hair, and even as food coloring. How could it be truly dangerous? It didn’t help that circumstance had a lot to do with how deadly arsenic wallpapers were. Depending upon the humidity and ventilation of their rooms, two people living in the same arsenic-laced home could be either in perfect health, or at death’s door.
Regardless, largely thanks to the designs pushed by Morris and his contemporaries, wallpaper became incredibly popular. While wallpapers used to be painted by hand, and were consequently available only to the extremely wealthy, arsenic-based pigments and the rapid evolution of industrial printing techniques had made wallpaper within reach for millions of Britons. “Everything in the Victorian era was about social class, and aspiring to reach the next class above your station,” says Hawksley. When wallpapers became affordable, they became a popular way to seem like you were at a higher social level than you actually were.
As for the wallpaper designs that came out of the era: Some of them are still in use today. The earliest Victorian wallpapers tended to be simple geometric patterns that would still look good in a tastefully designed midcentury home, says Hawksley. As the century progressed, however, wallpapers became more illustrative. In addition to flowered designs, wallpapers covered in portraits of military leaders like Lord Nelson or the Duke of Wellington became popular. It even became trendy to use many different wallpaper designs within the same room. “It must have looked horrendous,” Hawksley says, but for a few years, it was the style.
In the end, people wised up about arsenic, and began demanding arsenic-free wallpapers. “By the 1870s, people were taking the issue quite seriously, and it became unfashionable to buy arsenic wallpapers,” Hawksley explains. “After all, who wants to risk having arsenic in your home, when whole families are dropping dead, one after another?” Queen Victoria famously had all of the green arsenic wallpaper in Buckingham Palace torn down, prompting even wallpaper makers like Morris to cave, and release new arsenic-free lines, which–due to the emergence of mass-production printing and other manufacturing advances–managed to stay roughly the same cost without killing anyone.
It might seem silly that for the better part of a century, it was fashionable for Britons to cover the walls of their home in a known poison. But, argues Hawksley, there’s long been an intersection between poison and design. Think of the lead paint that was ubiquitous in American homes until 1977, or the radium-based cosmetics popular in the early 20th century. Arsenic wallpaper isn’t any different.
You can purchase a copy of Bitten by Witch Fever from Thames & Hudson here.
[All Images: courtesy Thames & Hudson]