What I'm Reading: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier; Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder; and watching the first two seasons of Breaking Bad - for the plot structure.
While reading my copy of the latest Collectibles Trader magazine, which I buy religiously, I came across the most fascinating article. With kind permission of the editor, here is my abridged version of that article, originally researched and written by costume and textiles expert Eleanor Keene.
When Eleanor was recently cataloguing a collection of items destined for auction in Sydney, she discovered a dress dating from the 1860s coloured an unusual, vivid green. The ensemble consisted of a full skirt, a low-cut short-sleeved evening bodice trimmed with lace, a long-sleeved high-necked day bodice, and a waist sash with a bow that fastened at the front. The condition was excellent - few signs of wear, the silk showed minimal deterioration, and even the sweat pads sewn into the bodice lining appeared as new - all suggesting that the dress may never have been worn.
|The Deadly Dress. Photograph by Eleanor Keene.|
Arsenic was used in a whole range of products during the 19th century, not just textile dye. It was frequently found in paint, wallpaper, cookware, on children's toys and sweet wrappers, in shampoo, soap and skin preparations, and on playing cards, a favoured Victorian pastime. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, skin irradiation, organ failure and eventual death. No wonder people fainted all the time. But it was also used as a medical preparation, doctors believing that the appropriate dose and application had considerable medical benefits, including as a sexual stimulant.
However, not all physicians were quite so enamoured of arsenic. One wrote in a medical journal of the era that after examining a ball gown owned by a London society hostess, he could report that it contained 60 grains of Scheele's green per square yard, apparently enough to kill 12 people, and that it was so poorly applied that even during a light waltz a poisonous cloud would follow its wearer around the dance floor. In 1862 Punch magazine also had a go at arsenic-dyed ball gowns, publishing a cartoon captioned 'The new dance of death. (Dedicated to the green wreath and dress-mongers.)'.
Concerns were raised, but were evidently ignored by successive parliaments and almost everyone else, until the end of the 19th century when consumer warnings were finally issued and people at last began to avoid using products containing arsenic.
But back to the four-piece dress Eleanor catalogued for auction. She wonders if the original owner realised how lethal it was and packed it away, hence its excellent condition, though couldn't bring herself to get rid of such a lovely ensemble. When Eleanor received the dress, it had come from an antique shop whose owners had passed away, so there was no one to ask about its origins. It sold at auction, and is now in a private collection. Still cherished, but from a distance, I suspect.
Eleanor Keene's original article, titled 'A Dress to Dye For', appeared in Collectibles Trader, edition 107, Dec 2012-Feb 2013, pp. 12-15. http://www.worldaa.com/