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The History of Green Dye Is a History of Death

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Happy St. Pat’s!

One of the first green dresses ever, from around 1778, at the Bata Shoe Museum. The dress tests positive for arsenic in the dye.
Photo: Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images

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You may be planning to wear green this St. Patrick’s Day. Green, the color of kissing the Irish! The color of money! The color of… horrible, horrible death.

At least when it came to green dyes through the Victorian age.

In 1814, a company in Schweinfurt, Germany, called the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company developed a new green dye. It was brighter than most traditional green dyes. It was bolder. The shade was so jewel-like that it quickly began being called "emerald green." And women loved it. Largely because it was during this time that gas lighting, rather than candlelight, was being introduced. When women went out to parties at night, the rooms were considerably brighter than they had been only a few decades before. These party-goers wanted to make sure they were wearing gowns that stood out boldly — gowns in a shade like emerald green. People also began using it for wallpaper and carpeting. Victorian Britain was said to be "bathed in… green."

Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the reason that dye was so striking is that it was made with arsenic, as it a topic that Alison Matthews David covers extensively in her book, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present.

The effects of arsenic exposure are horrific. In addition to being deadly, it produces ulcers all over the skin. Those who come in close contact with it might develop scabs and sores wherever it touched. It can also make your hair fall out, and can cause people to vomit blood before shutting down their livers and kidneys.

So, this is probably one of the worst chemicals for a society to be "bathed in."

This was obviously unpleasant for women who wore green apparel. In 1871, one "lady who purchased a box of green-colored gloves at a well-known and respectable house" was horrified to find that her hands broke out in blisters after putting them on. Unless the dye was sealed, sweaty palms could cause the dye to run onto the wearer’s skin. Other accounts from this era tell of babies dying in their nurseries after playing on green carpets or rubbing up against green wallpaper. One foreign dignitary even told Queen Victoria that the green wallpaper in Buckingham Palace had made him ill. This sounds like a ridiculous dig at her taste in decor until you realize that he was absolutely correct. Queen Victoria, clearly less sensitive than I would have been, had the wallpaper removed, though perhaps because when the dye was applied to wallpaper, a "mouse-like odor" was produced. Ironically, when people in these nurseries or rooms became sick, they were often put to bed in those very spaces, where the arsenic would ultimately kill them.

Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

And if you think the effects were terrifying for the people who merely brushed against these fabrics, wait until you hear what happened to the women who manufactured them, working with the dye every day. Matilda Scheurer, a 19-year-old woman who applied the arsenic green dye to fake flowers, died in a way that horrified the populace in 1861. She threw up green vomit, the whites of her eyes turned green, and when she died, she claimed that "everything she looked at was green." When people began investigating such workshops, they found other women in similar distress, like one "who had been kept on [working with] green... till her face was one mass of sores."

And doctors knew this was happening. They began talking about the "great deal of slow poisoning going on in Great Britain" as early as 1857. Before long, illustrations were being run in newspapers depicting skeletons dancing in green dresses. The Times pondered, following a case where arsenic poisoning was spread through socks, "What manufactured article in these days of high-pressure civilization can possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous?" I mean, to be honest, the ones that were not green. Those were the ones that could be trusted.

The Victorian slang for an attractive person — "killing" — even took on new meaning, with the British Medical Journal remarking: "Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature. She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms."

Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

You would think that these stories would have caused people to immediately stop wearing the color, but, of course, they didn’t. Consumers throughout history have engaged in all manner of wildly unhealthy behaviors for the sake of fashion. And production of the color was a huge industry! So for years, some people were willing to put up with these grotesque deaths if the alternative was muted shades, or, as one proponent of green dye described them, "abominable grays, hideous browns, and dreadful yellows."

Some people tried to tell themselves that they’d be safe provided they did not lick the fabric or wallpaper, which was, unfortunately, not true. Others claimed that the doctors were simply lying, because some people will always believe that science is just not real. All this in spite of the fact that every Victorian household probably had a jar of arsenic to poison rats, so they knew it was poisonous.

This backlash meant it took until 1895 for regulations to be put in place regulating conditions in factories where workers would be exposed to arsenic. Fortunately, by then, "in the absence of government intervention, the people of Britain had used the power of their pocketbooks" to demand alternatives to the arsenic-based dye.

Thank goodness they did.

To this day, green dye has a bad reputation among seamstresses. Women who work with fabrics at Chanel believe that is linked to "bad luck." Fortunately, the green dye on your clothing is no longer made with arsenic. Although, if this St. Patrick’s Day you notice a "mouse-like odor" emanating from your outfit… well, someone probably just spilled Guinness on it. But if you want to strip naked just to be safe, far be it from us to stop you.

Update: This post has been updated to cite the work of Alison Matthews David.