Uncovering Arsenic in Eighteenth-
& Nineteenth-Century Wallpapers
Wallpaper (detail), early 1800s
Woodblock-printed on paper
64.1 x 50.5 cm. (25 5⁄16 x 19 7/8 in.)
Mary B. Jackson Fund 34.1071
What makes the color green such an appealing choice to bring into our homes? Perhaps it is the association with nature—vibrant landscapes and lush vegetation—that has compelled us throughout history to bring the outdoors inside by painting and papering our walls in shades of green. Historical wallpapers brought both the colors and artistic representations of the natural world into domestic spaces. The desire to faithfully reproduce these hues, and to respond to emerging fashion trends, drove the development of new pigments that in the eighteenth century would begin to color all aspects of life in highly saturated green.
Vibrant green wallpapers, textiles, children’s toys, and other objects were widely purchased by consumers who were unaware they were surrounding themselves with a deadly poison: arsenic. A naturally occurring heavy metal, it was discovered to enhance the vibrancy of historically muted green pigments. The desire for intensely colored greens set in motion a chain of devastating consequences on human health, from the workers who produced the material to those who purchased green-colored products whose alluring hue came from the use of arsenic. Wallpapers printed with arsenic-laced pigments may no longer line the walls of our homes, but they have not disappeared completely. Where there are historical collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wallpapers, there is likely arsenic, and the recent scientific testing of a sampling of wallpapers from the RISD Museum’s collection has confirmed this fact. Our findings, along with new information about the complex history of arsenic’s use in wallpaper production, help us to better understand its effect on human health and how we can safely preserve, study, and exhibit these wallpapers in the RISD Museum collection today.
The origins of wallpaper in Europe likely began with the dominotiers, a guild of French artisans who produced woodblock-printed papers for various uses, including advertisements, stationary, and playing cards. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the dominotiers made papiers de tapisserie, or tapestry papers, which became an affordable imitation of the ornamental and pictorial tapestries that lined the walls in homes of European nobility. The papiers de tapisserie were woodblock-printed on square sheets of paper that could be pasted together to form a cohesive pattern on a wall or used as endpapers in books or lining for drawers.1
Though it was far less expensive than textiles, wallpaper was still considered a luxury good and was subject to tax as early as 1712 in Britain, making it affordable only to the wealthy merchant class.2 As interest in wallpaper grew, manufacturers responded with a wider array of designs at different price points, increasing its accessibility. Throughout the mid-1700s, English wallpapers found a receptive audience across Europe and in America, but France swiftly came to dominate the market, owing to their rapid advancements in printing technology and highly refined sense of design.3
The traditional process for printing wallpapers, which is still used by some of the oldest manufacturers today, revolves around woodblock printing. In this process, designs are drawn onto paper and then transferred and carved into blocks of wood. The blocks are pressed into the color, which has been brushed onto a leather or cloth pad, similar to the process of inking a stamp, then pressed onto sheets of paper. Each color in the pattern required the carving of a separate block, meaning the number of woodblocks and colors used can range from only a few to a few thousand, depending on the size and intricacy of the image.4 As the complexity of wallpaper designs increased in the nineteenth century, so did the desire for a greater range of colors manufacturers could employ to more accurately reproduce scenes from the world around them. But at what cost?
Formulas for creating paints and dyes have greatly evolved over centuries, from the crude simplicity of ground clay to the highly developed, chemically engineered colors used today. Most early green pigments were muted in tone, and it wasn’t until 1775 when Swedish German chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) first used arsenic to produce the vivid color that came to be known as Scheele’s Green. This bright yellow-green pigment quickly gained popularity, but due to its unstable chemical formula it was prone to darkening and to fading over time. In 1814, a German paint manufacturer by the name of Wilhelm Sattler (1784–1859) worked with pharmacist Friedrich Russ to improve upon Scheele’s Green, producing a brighter, more durable arsenic-based compound: Emerald Green.5 These eye-catching pigments found their way into an array of wallpaper designs that had a broad appeal with consumers eager to brighten their interiors.
Wallpaper designs from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century reflected stylistic trends that existed across all art forms. The works selected from the museum’s collection for arsenic testing exemplify these popular motifs: classical revival, nature, geometric compositions, and scenes from faraway places. The use of classical imagery and scenes from mythology gained prominence after the rediscovery of the ancient sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1713 and 1748.
French, active ca. 1735–1823
(The Rage of Achilles), 1790
Woodblock-printed on paper
78.4 x 100.3 cm. (30 7/8 x 39 1/2 in.)
Mary B. Jackson Fund 34.946
Rendered in striking shades of green, yellow, and black, Colère D’Achile (The Rage of Achilles) [Fig. 1] depicts a scene from the ancient Greek story The Iliad by Homer. Illustrated is the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon. On the left side, the powerful king Agamemnon stands with his hand outstretched in command to Achilles, at the right, who reaches down to draw his sword. Unlike long wallpaper panels with repeating designs, the rectangular shape of Colère D’Achile makes it likely to be a dessus de porte panel, meant to be placed above a doorway. A panel of this size could also have been used as a chimney or fireboard, popular in America during the eighteenth century, where lower ceiling heights left little space above doorways. Wooden boards fit to the size of a fireplace opening would be pasted with wallpaper, providing a pleasant visual that covered unsightly embers after a fire had gone out and brightened an otherwise drab space during months when fireplaces were not lit.6 The bands of bright green in the design revealed the second-highest level of arsenic of the RISD Museum wallpapers tested, and with its date of 1790, it is likely to be an early example of the use of Scheele’s Green.
Created by an unknown French manufacturer around fifty years later, View of Venice [Fig. 2] may have functioned similarly to Colère D’Achile as a dessus de porte. The small seascape in the center, curiously rendered in green, is viewed through an architectural framework that could be real or imagined. The electric green color employed throughout the curtains, border, and center seascape made this work a top candidate for arsenic testing, and rightly so; the central green area tested 335 percent higher for arsenic than the second-highest result, from Colère D’Achile.
View of Venice, ca. 1840
Woodblock-printed on paper
53.5 x 55.1 cm. (21 1/8 x 21 11⁄16 in.)
Mary B. Jackson Fund 34.1055
Attributed to Zuber & Cie
Design for Moire Silk, ca. 1825
Woodblock-printed on paper
88 x 49 cm. (34 5/8 x 19 5⁄16 in.)
Mary B. Jackson Fund 34.1005
Flocked Border, ca. 1790
Woodblock-printed on paper
Mary B. Jackson Fund 34.1152
Textile designs, particularly those imported from India, were also reproduced in popular wallpapers. A design for moire silk [Fig. 3], produced ca. 1825 and attributed to Zuber & Cie, features a shockingly bright, almost neon-colored design made using color-gradient printing, or l’irisé (iridescence). Developed by Zuber around 1820, this technique allowed for a seamless blend of colors and was often used to create the illusion of depth for landscape backgrounds.7 In an effort to suggest not only the look but also the feel of textiles, a process known as flocking was created. Papers were printed and then painted with an adhesive, onto which colored wool fibers were adhered, providing a rich textural contrast in imitation of costly fabric.8 A test conducted on a bright green wallpaper border with a flocked trim [Fig. 4] confirmed arsenic’s presence in the flocking. This is hardly surprising, since the same arsenic dyes found in wallpaper paints were also used to color textiles.
Even before arsenic made its way into pigments such as Scheele’s Green, it could be found in a number of industries including agriculture, where it was employed as a pesticide, and in medicine, where it was used to treat malaria, syphilis, and other maladies. It was also found in cosmetics and skincare products, which were readily advertised as containing arsenic.9 Arsenic was used so widely that it infiltrated every aspect of life, and its ubiquity meant that the public showed little concern for arsenic-green paints and dyes, which by the mid-nineteenth century had become increasingly fashionable.
Illnesses and deaths resulting from exposure to arsenic wallpaper were difficult to determine, as few suspected their new décor. Some of the earliest reports of poisoning by wallpaper were made around the 1850s by physicians, many of whom experienced symptoms such as nausea and abdominal pain firsthand after covering their own homes with green wallpaper. Their symptoms were alleviated when they left their wallpapered rooms for a number of days but returned once they went back to inhabiting these spaces.10 It eventually became abundantly clear that the wallpaper was the culprit, and theories abounded about how the toxins were released. Some blamed arsenical dust, citing that the pigments used in wallpaper printing were not steadfast, and flaked or turned to powder that was carried in the air. Others believed that a poisonous gas could be released if conditions were too damp.11
Meanwhile, workers, including women and children, who were exposed to arsenic through mining and in the production of wallpapers, textiles, and artificial flowers exhibited even more severe symptoms, including discoloration and lesions of the skin.12 While the exact number of deaths related to poisoning by arsenic wallpaper remains unknown, young children may have suffered the most, as evidenced by those who died after they touched, tore, or even chewed the paper that lined the walls where they lived and played.
Only gradually did the public begin to heed warnings about arsenic wallpapers, perhaps in part because the belief persisted that only those printed in shades of green contained arsenic. In actuality, arsenic was used to enhance the durability and vibrancy of a range of colors.13 Taking this fact into account, the RISD Museum’s tests involved not only the green areas of each wallpaper example, but also two or three adjacent colors. In one floral wallpaper [Fig. 5], for instance, tests were conducted on the blue and pink flowers in addition to the green foliage, all of which revealed some level of arsenic.
Even as the public was being convinced of the dangers of wallpaper, many critics—including wallpaper designers and manufacturers—railed against accusations that these products were responsible for illness or even death. Among the deniers was William Morris, one of the most prolific designers of the nineteenth century. His socialist ideals and staunch support of workers through fair wages and proper working conditions make it all the more surprising that he so fervently denied the claims that arsenic in wallpaper could have any ill effects. In 1885 Morris wrote: “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.”14
Wallpaper, ca. 1820
Woodblock-printed on paper
31 x 41.6 cm. (12 3⁄16 x 16 3/8 in.)
Mary B. Jackson Fund 34.1136
Throughout Europe, governmental responses varied in regard to the sale and use of arsenic. By the mid-nineteenth century, many countries had restricted not only the sale of arsenic wallpapers, but any product in which arsenic might be found.15 Despite the British government’s refusal to acknowledge reports from physicians and scientists regarding the dangers of arsenic, persistent accounts in newspapers seem to have swayed public opinion, causing wallpaper sales to plummet. By the 1870s wallpaper manufacturers, including Morris & Company, began producing arsenic and lead-free wallpapers, or at least they claimed as such. In truth, the companies who sold pigments to the wallpaper manufacturers often continued to use arsenic, even while claiming their products to be arsenic-free.16 Such is the case with Jeffrey & Co. In 1879, the manufacture invited a distinguished chemist to analyze their wallpapers for toxins. Their declaration that the wallpapers were “entirely free of poisonous substances” led Jeffrey & Co. to liberally advertise their wares as being “free from arsenic,” resulting in a boom in sales.17 Not surprisingly, xrf analysis of a Jeffrey & Co. wallpaper in the museum’s collection dated ca. 1900 [Fig. 6] rebuts the company’s claims. Though it was the most recently manufactured wallpaper in the testing group, it was confirmed to have a relatively high amount of arsenic in both the green and blue pigments.
It took several decades before arsenic wallpapers fully disappeared from homes, hotels, and other public buildings, but their historic significance in design, industry, commerce, and other fields cannot be understated. It is for these reasons that examples of wallpapers, even ones created during the arsenic centuries, survive in museums today. Wallpapers have been collected by the RISD Museum since 1917, although the most prominent works make up a subset known as the Huard collection, purchased by the museum in 1934. Regarded as one of the most important collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wallpapers in America, it comprises more than five hundred predominately French panels and fragments [Fig. 7]. Charles Huard (1874–1965) was born in Paris and worked as a lithographer, etcher, and illustrator.18 His wife, Frances Wilson Huard, known in correspondence as Madame Charles Huard (1885–1969), was an American-born author of several books, including a biography of her husband. The two were married in 1905 and less than a decade later found their lives impacted in separate ways by the tragedies of World War I (1914–1918). Charles was drafted into the French Army as an official war artist and illustrated scenes of life and battle. Frances recounted her firsthand experiences of the war in rural France in two memoirs: My Home in the Field of Honour and My Home in the Field of Mercy, which feature illustrations by Charles.
The Huards were passionate collectors of art, particularly historical wallpapers, which they bought, sold, and even reproduced. It is not known when they became acquainted with Helen Metcalf Danforth (1887–1984), the president of the Rhode Island School of Design from 1931 to 1947. A letter from Madame Huard to Mrs. Danforth in the spring of 1934 indicated that the two had met the previous summer when Mrs. Danforth had the opportunity to view the Huards' collection of historical wallpaper. In the letter, Madame Huard stated that “the ever growing apprehension of what may rapidly transpire in Europe is what prompts me to write and ask you if you would consider purchasing the collection.”19 It can be inferred that Madame Huard was referring to tensions brewing in Europe over Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as chancellor of Germany in 1933. Fueled by the humiliation of defeat during World War I and the repatriations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, which crippled the country’s economy, Hitler’s campaign to conquer Europe awoke fear in those such as the Huards.
More than a monetary transaction, the sale of the wallpapers to RISD was likely fueled by the Huards' desire to safeguard their collection from the effects of another devastating war, as many of their belongings had been destroyed during the German invasion of France in World War I. Recognizing the great significance of this historic wallpaper collection, Mrs. Danforth and RISD Museum director L. Earle Rowe (1882–1937) agreed to purchase the wallpapers, which were shipped from France to Rhode Island and presented for acquisition in October 1934.
At the RISD Museum, our goal as stewards and caretakers is to preserve artwork for generations to come. Artworks made on paper, wallpapers included, can be among the most vulnerable in the collection. Materially, they are inherently fragile, and often highly sensitive to light exposure and fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The paints on wallpapers are an additional layer of concern, particularly where arsenic could be present and adversely affected by changes in climate. Given that the date range of the Huard collection aligns with the period during which arsenic pigments were being used in wallpapers, an investigation was prompted to identify potential papers that contained arsenic. As part of the process, we sought to learn about how the presence of this toxic heavy metal could affect the ways in which we stored, handled, and displayed historical wallpapers.
On February 27, 2020, a group of RISD Museum conservation and curatorial staff met with Dr. David Murray, the senior research associate and facility manager in environmental and earth sciences at Brown University, to conduct scientific testing on a selection of wallpapers and textiles with the goal of confirming the presence of arsenic.20 Testing was conducted by Dr. Murray [Figs. 8 and 9] using X-ray fluorescence (xrf), which detects the presence of heavy metals including iron, lead, copper, and arsenic. The selection of nine wallpapers was made based on two factors: color and date. Wallpapers in a range of green tones were chosen, with a preference given to those dated between the late-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century, when arsenic was known to have been widely in use. The geographical origin of the works—eight wallpapers from France and one from England—reflects the strength of the RISD Museum’s holdings in French wallpapers. All nine wallpapers tested were found to contain arsenic.
Connecting with conservators and scientists at other institutions with historical wallpaper collections has also helped us to understand the different approaches to how arsenic wallpapers are treated, stored, and handled.21 This information, in addition to our own testing efforts, has helped to lay the groundwork for new policies regarding safe storage and handling of wallpapers in the RISD Museum’s collection that are found or assumed to have arsenic pigments. To protect the health and safety of museum staff, personal protective equipment (ppe) such as nitrile gloves and face masks are now used to mitigate health risks during prolonged exposure.
Understanding materials like arsenic from a scientific perspective plays an important role in how museums care for their collections. Though objects are often viewed as static, the materials from which they are made are living compounds that fluctuate and change over time. Identifying hazardous materials in the collection is vital in determining health risks to staff members who work with objects closely and sometimes on a daily basis. The process of researching and writing this article gave me an opportunity to delve into the material science of wallpaper, and with the help of conservators and scientists, develop a plan to ensure a safe future for both RISD Museum staff and our historically important wallpapers.
FIG. 8 & 9
Dr. David Murray conducting XRF
analysis on a wallpaper panel at the
RISD Museum, February 27, 2020.
Photo: Emily Banas
Detail of XRF analysis being done
on a wallpaper panel at the RISD
Museum, February 27, 2020.
Photo: Emily Banas
- Françoise Teynac, Pierre Nolot, Jean-Denis Vivien, and Françoise Teynac, Wallpaper: A History (New York:
Rizzoli, 1982), 21–22.
- Gill Saunders, Wallpaper in Interior Decoration (London: Watson-Guptill, 2002), 12.
- Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz, Wallpaper: A History of Style and Trends (Paris: Flammarion, 2009), 30.
- Thibaut-Pomerantz, Wallpaper, 8.
- Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 155.
- Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War I (New York: W.W. Norton,
- Lynn, Wallpaper in America, 274.
- Saunders, Wallpaper in Interior Decoration, 11–12.
- Lucinda Hawksley, Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home (London:
Thames & Hudson, 2016), 91–92.
- John Parascandola, King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012), 113.
- Hawksley, Bitten by Witch Fever, 154 and 166.
- Hawksley, Bitten by Witch Fever, 61–62.
- Hawksley, Bitten by Witch Fever, 64.
- See Hawksley, Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home for more
information about William Morris’s connection to arsenic mining and additional denial of arsenic poisoning by
- Hawksley, Bitten by Witch Fever, 219–20.
- Hawksley, Bitten by Witch Fever, 228.
- Saunders, Wallpaper in Interior Decoration, 131. See ca. 1890 advertisement for Jeffrey & Co. in Hawksley,
Bitten by Witch Fever, 222.
- Several etchings by Charles Huard are held in the collection of the RISD Museum.
- Letter from Frances Wilson Huard (Madame Charles Huard) to Mrs. Murray S. Danforth, March 12, 1934, Paris.
RISD Museum Department of Decorative Arts and Design.
- Staff included Emily Banas, assistant curator of decorative arts and design; Ingrid Neuman, senior conservator;
Jessica Urick, associate conservator, costume and textiles; Anna Rose Keefe, conservation assistant, costume
and textiles; and Brianna Turner, conservation assistant. Special thanks to Ingrid Neuman for connecting us with
Dr. David Murray and organizing the XRF testing, and to Christin FitzGerald, RISD Museum paper preparator, for
sharing her expertise in the materiality and conservation of paper.
- I am extremely grateful to the staff at the National Archives UK for the generosity in sharing their research
and methods for arsenic testing on wallpaper: Dr. Lora Angelova, head of conservation research and audience
development; Dr. Lucía Pereira Pardo, senior conservation scientist; and Dr. Helen Wilson, conservation scientist.
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