Asked why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1891), a now infamous critique of “the rest cure”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman recounted her own treatment for neurasthenia. Forbidden by her doctor from intellectual labor and confined to the domestic sphere, she was brought “so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.” Seventeen years earlier, in the preface to Shadows from the Walls of Death (1874), a book that gathers real swaths of arsenic wallpaper sourced from stores across Michigan, physician Robert Clark Kedzie made his own evaluation of treatments for nervous exhaustion, offering a peculiar chemical theory for the descent into madness during bed rest. From Kedzie’s perspective, Gilman’s narrator — who believed that her boudoir wallpaper bore a “vicious influence” — was right: something sinister had been lurking in plain sight.
How many women have thus “gone into a decline,” I will not venture to guess. Perhaps a consideration of the “delicate state of her lungs” leads her to confine herself to her room, and the fear of “taking cold,” to avoid all ventilation; and thus she breathes constantly an air loaded with the breath of death. . . . and finally succumbs to consumption, — a consumption of arsenic in every breath she inhales!
Kedzie was writing during a frenzy for wallpaper in Europe and the United States, fueled by eighteenth-century innovations in block printing, steam-powered presses, and new color compounds (in Britain, for example, the supply of wallpaper increased 2615% between 1834 and 1874). Opulent greens, yellows, and violets could now be cheaply rendered on a mass scale thanks to Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele’s invention of copper arsenite paint, whose colors soon bled into bookbinding, drapes, gowns, and other pigmented garments. Commenting on the Parisian fad for arsenic green dresses, such as this exquisite tea gown worn by Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay — an inspiration for Proust’s Duchess de Guermantes — Punch magazine called their shade “the hue of death, the tint of the grave”.
Known and used as a poison since Ancient Greece, arsenic was something of a pharmakon in the nineteenth century, believed to be both medicine and poison, depending on the dose. As Lucinda Hawksley tracks in her expansive and beautifully-wrought Bitten by Witch Fever, the same Victorian newspapers that venerated Austrian arsenic eaters for their rosy complexions also carried shocking accounts of Gesche Gottfried, Hélène Jégado, and Maria Swanenburg: nineteenth-century serial killers suspected of claiming hundreds of victims with the substance colloquially known as “inheritance powder”. In the realm of aesthetics, a similar contradiction arose in the art and life of William Morris, socialist activist and famed wallpaper designer, whose business was built on wealth from Devin Great Consols, a copper mine turned world’s largest arsenic refinery. Criticized for blinkering himself to the health conditions of miners, Morris also remained skeptical of research that suggested his signature patterns could cause disease, going on the record with a quotation that supplied Hawksley with her study’s title: “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.” In response, Dante Gabriel Rossetti poked venomous fun at Morris in his unpublished satirical skit The Death of Topsy. The play sees George Wardle, Morris’ real life business manager, and his wife Madeleine Smith — a Glaswegian socialite famously tried for poisoning her lover with arsenic — slip the substance into the boss’ coffee.
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, modern wallpaper experienced a backlash, both from aesthetes and medical professionals. In an 1882 lecture on the British renaissance in decorative arts, prepared for his tour of the United States, Oscar Wilde declared recent wallpaper “so bad that a boy brought up under its influence could allege it as a justification for turning to a life of crime.” And indeed, his deathbed quip in 1900 — “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go” — inadvertently captured the emerging scientific consensus about arsenical wallpaper: its presence, like crime, was a threat to life. Few had thought arsenic could be volatilized until Bartolomeo Gosio discovered that fungi growing in damp paper paste were prone to synthesize noxious fumes that bore notes of garlic. In books and pamphlets such as Our Domestic Poisons (1879), Our Homes, And How to Make Them Healthy (1883), “On Chronic Arsenic Poisoning, Especially from Wall-Paper” (1889) , and a strange, anonymous novel of the era, The Green of the Period; or, The Unsuspected Foe in the Englishman’s Home (1869), the element’s full-fledged dangers were unveiled to the public. Some went so far as to revise the past, suggesting, for example, that Napoleon was ultimately defeated, not on the battlefield, but by his green wallpaper on St. Helena. (Drawing on recent chemical testing of Napoleon’s wallpaper in The Arsenic Century, James C. Whorton believes that the emperor did suffer from arsenic poisoning, but doubts wallpaper was the primary source.)
Dr. R. M. Kedzie, who served on the Michigan Board of Health in the 1870s, explains his unique strategy for raising awareness in the preface to Shadows from the Walls of Death. Originally printed in a run of one hundred copies, only a half-dozen of which remain due to recipients fearfully destroying their copies, the book is contaminated by the very substance under indictment. That is, to eradicate the poison, Kedzie chose to archive its vehicle. “[T]o call attention to this source of danger, and to assist persons in detecting these dangerous colors in wall paper, the State Board of Health Directed me to prepare specimen books of such dangerous wall papers. . . . The wall papers in this book all contain arsenic.” Below you can browse selections from Kedzie’s pernicious book through the safety of your digital display — a magic made possible, in part, by arsenic embedded in the electronics that have come to wallpaper modern life.
November 3, 2022