Green has always been a popular color for printing wallpapers. Floral wallpapers make up by far the largest design group within the department, and how many floral designs do you see without foliage? Many wallpapers bearing a certain shade of yellow-green printed during the nineteenth century are thought to contain arsenic. Green had always been a fugitive color, quickly fading or turning to a muddy brown. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century papers printed with green were frequently overprinted with varnish to help stabilize the color.
Carl Wilhelm Scheele to the rescue with his invention in 1775. Composed of copper arsenite, the new Scheele’s Green pigment was cheap to produce and much less prone to fading than other greens and was used for printing wallpaper through much of the nineteenth century. As evidence of its stability, below is a sample in the museum’s collection dated to 1836 where the entire design has faded out, excepting the green details.
By 1858 the media was speaking out on the dangers of this green pigment. It was stated that one London manufacturer was using two tons of arsenic per week to print wallpapers, and that a single square foot contained enough arsenic to poison five or six people. (1) That’s a lot of green! While many countries adopted laws prohibiting the use of arsenic as a colorant, by 1884 the United States had not yet enacted such legislation. (2)
And one did not need to lick or eat the wallpaper to be poisoned. The arsenic could be inhaled in the form of flaking pigment caused by moisture or abrasion, while chemical changes brought on by heat and moisture could cause the release of toxic vapors. To help reduce this problem at the museum the papers are all stored in a climate controlled environment. We don’t regularly perform chemical analysis on pigments so to prevent possible ingestion we wash our hands frequently, both before and after handling, especially when working with papers produced prior to 1900. While it is not possible to hold one’s breath for the duration of the examination, the thought does cross my mind.
- The Independent, The Arsenic in Paper-Hangings, December 2, 1858,
- The American Architect and Building News, Poisonous Pigments and Wall-Papers, April 5, 1884, pg. 164.