Saturday, 22 December 2012

Arsenic and Old Lace

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.
Due to its very vibrant colour, Eleanor initially assumed the dress was an early example of the synthetic chemical dying processes developed in the 1850s after Henry William Perkin, the inventor of the colour mauve, successfully commercialised aniline dye. But actually, she discovered to her surprise that the dress had been coloured using arsenic dye, still in use in the 1860s because the colour green was so popular and arsenic relatively cheap (a by-product of mining). The dye itself was produced by mixing a potent amount of arsenic with copper, creating colours such as 'Scheele's green', 'Paris green', and 'Emerald green'. 

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.


  1. Fascinating story about the dress, Deborah. I never realised before how much I take day to day safety in my day to day life for granted!

  2. Hi Yvonne. Thanks. It's no wonder the Victorians didn't live that long compared to us!

  3. A gift for the one you love - an arsenic dress!!

  4. What a great idea, Kez. I must remember that for next Christmas. Or perhaps something a little more intimate, like poison pjs, or noxious knickers!

  5. If you're a mystery writer, and have an unexplained death, look to see if the dress is dyed green! This is great research. I may need to switch out some of my green ball gowns. I don't want to poison my characters.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Habisha. Apologies for not responding until now! Fascinating subject, isn't it? There's an excellent blog post on toxic green dyes here as well...


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