Green is a color with an odd set of polysemantic
symbolism in Western culture. It is the color of life, of luck,
the color of creativity, of nature, and health. But it is also the color of illness and death,
used to symbolize wickedness and insidious cunning. Today we call certain shades acid green, or
poison green. But what is the reason for this dichotomy? Prior to the use of mordant,
green was a tricky color to achieve with plant-based dyes. The greens will often be dim or pale,
or easily skew too teal. But one day in Victorian France, Empress Eugenie visited the opera in a strikingly
vivid green dress. The French, always riding the cutting edge
of European fashion, went mad for the color, and soon it was everywhere. Expensive suits and dresses, silk flowers,
wallpaper, food dyes, even children’s toys were painted
with it. Trouble is, the color was produced by mixing
arsenic with copper. Arsenic is highly toxic,
with just an 1/8th of a teaspoon constituting a lethal dose. The Victorians weren’t exactly known for
avoiding poisonous substances, so even though they knew arsenic was fatal
to ingest, they felt reasonably safe handling it. Gallons of it, with their bare hands. Now the expensive dresses made with this “Paris
Green” dye had a low level of toxicity after the dying
was complete. And, Victorians wore so many layers beneath
their clothing to shield the dresses from sweat,
that they hardly touched the fabric they wore. You know who did have to handle it? The factory workers, many of them small children,
the seamstresses and tailors, the laundresses. Those who dyed the fabric, dusted the florals,
painted the wallpaper. It’s really an interesting look at class
relations. The pernicious luxury of wearing clothing
at the costs of chemicals literally eating alive the people
beneath you. Stories of factory workers falling ill were
rampant, but largely ignored. Symptoms ranged from poor appetites, constant
headaches, and anemic pallor, to ulcerations on their exposed skin and crater-like
scars. After research about the health of artificial
flower makers was published, France and Germany passed laws to restrict
the production of Paris Green. But yet, England persisted. Even when, only a few years later,
the death of a 19-year-old named Matilda Scheurer was widely publicized. She worked dusting artificial leaves with
green powder to make them appear more lifelike. Autopsy confirmed that the inhaled arsenic
had reached her lungs, liver, and stomach. According to the contemporary testimonials,
she convulsed and vomited green waters; the whites of her eyes had gone green,
and she told her doctor that “everything she saw was green”. The story was horrible and sensational,
and it did begin to sway public opinion about the shade,
though not enough to curb demand. When asked about the toxic green, one society
woman laughed it off. “We’ve been counseled not to lick [our
dresses],” she said. Which is just an incredible statement and
such an entitled perspective, completely missing the point. But we aren’t much better now. Most of the articles I found on this subject
were labeled things like “Killer Clothing Was All the Rage In the
19th Century.” Or “These Dresses Could—And Literally Did—Kill.” And the best: “Paris Green: The Trendy Color
That Killed Many in Victorian Society.” But if you read the URL, this article was
originally titled: “This Trendy But Toxic Shade of Green
Left Thousands Dead In the Victorian Era.” I spy a retraction. But the point is, even today people are spreading
the myth that the dresses killed,
as if fancy ladies were dropping like flies. When the reality is that the dresses only
ever posed a significant threat to the poor. The upperclass eventually did begin to feel
the effects, not due to the clothing, but the wallpaper. When arsenic-painted wallpaper becomes damp,
it was capable of releasing an arsine gas into the air. Children sickened, one family, the Turners,
loosing four children to mysterious illness that the doctor ruled “natural causes.” Yet Paris Green remained fashionable until
1879, when a visiting foreign dignitary informed
the Queen that he had gotten sick overnight
and attributed it to the green wallpaper surrounding his bed. The Queen immediately ordered the removal
of all green wallpaper from the palace, and when word got out it initiated a panic
throughout the kingdom. Finally convinced, the people sought to eradicate
arsenic from their daily lives, but kept finding more. Even when the labels changed and arsenic was
removed, it was often later found that the manufactures
hadn’t actually changed their formulas, and the public fear and outrage would be renewed. But why does fear of this particular color
persist, even today? After all, white paint contained lead
and yellow used chlorine, but fear of those colors aren’t engrained
in out psyches. Well, in the early 20th century, Paris Green was still produced and used, but as insecticide and rat poison. Early cartoons reflect this, and over time
green has become the culturally recognized color for poison,
subconsciously associated with sickness, evil, death, witches, and all of the other BAD things. Across pop culture it often represents sly,
cunning, duplicitous characters, possibly because of the underhanded nature
of poisoning. Virtually every Disney movie has a green villain
moment, and almost every Disney villain uses lies
and trickery whilst plotting against the hero. Now I’m not trying to convince you that
green Victorian dresses are directly responsible for the puke emoji,
but there is a clear and tangible connection through time. Well, I had a lot of fun with this one. It started out, “oh look at the pretty
green dresses”, then it slowly morphed into research on the psychology
behind the color green. So yeah, now you can never not notice it again
🙂