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My office has moved to Midtown (across from Grand Central…more about that later), but I think I like the concrete canyons of Downtown better.  The streets down by Wall Street feel like I always imagined New York felt like when I was little (although so do the brownstone streets of Brooklyn).  Downtown also has unique holiday decorations–those jagged star/explosions.  Whenever I see them, I imagine Batman has just punched the lamppost and an audible “Bap” or “Kapow” is forthcoming.  I guess they are supposed to betoken universal peace or some such thing, but it sure looks like Batman went on a rampage.  Indeed, the whole downtown area sort of has the brooding gritty melancholy of Gotham…especially on foggy or wintry days.

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19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination.  At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market.  Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy.  There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s.  The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic).  Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning.  Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day).  In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp.  As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced.  In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe.  Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color.  Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain.  To quote  suttonplacedesign.com, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us.  At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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