Arsenic, old lace and Victorian wallpaper | AspenTimes.com
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Arsenic, old lace and Victorian wallpaper

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

Wallpaper was a popular decorating item in Victorian Aspen. Shops advertised new shipments as soon as they arrived. Patterns and colors for decorating walls achieved as much attention as did fashions in women’s clothing. Purveyors Landgreen and Hickey, plus E. M. Ovren, operated on Hyman Avenue. Morthland Paper and Painting Company occupied the premier corner of the Aspen Block. The Wall Paper Emporium was another major dealer and hanger. Even retailers who did not specialize in wallpaper itself took advantage of the trend.

Wallpaper cleaners attracted plenty of business. Cleaning was promoted not just as an alternative to applying new paper; it was also touted for health reasons. After Aspen was electrified, methods including “electric cleaning” kept Aspen’s homes smelling and looking clean. The accumulation of soot from coal and wood stoves required frequent removal to keep colors vibrant.

An article in an 1896 Aspen Tribune connected two feminine fads: riding bicycles and home decoration. It suggested women might want to paper their “female boudoir” with images of females and males bicycling.

Bill Bryson’s book, “At Home,” tells of the popularity of wallpaper and the use of arsenic in producing it. Bryson notes that in the late 1890s people observed the connection between chronic illness and green wallpaper. Those enfeebled by sleeping in green-papered rooms regained health through traveling to the country for a “change in air.” They also noted that bedrooms decorated with green wallpaper had no bedbugs.

Arsenic poisoning was a frequent topic of concern in Aspen because celebrity criminal trials often featured arsenic as the modus operandi. By the 1850s, coroners had learned how to test for arsenic in the tissue of the deceased. When murder was suspected but no obvious method had been employed, arsenic was usually detected. Any “whodunit” trial involving arsenic made the front pages of Aspen’s papers.

Doctors prescribed arsenic for a multitude of ailments before the days of antibiotics; however, too much arsenic was as significant a problem as the malady itself. Arsenic was widely available in several forms at pharmacies and hardware stores for self-medication. It often appeared as an unlabeled ingredient in popular ailment-alleviating products. In addition to home consumption, arsenic crystals grew in Aspen’s underground labyrinths, where the crystals exposed miners to unintended consumption.

In the late 1890s, Aspenites became aware of the connection between too much arsenic and illness as they learned that their wallpaper was poisoning them.

Vast amounts of arsenic were used in the production of wallpaper. Wallpaper hangers also mixed arsenic into their paste to prevent rats from nibbling on it. Without arsenic, paste fueled mold growth, and became a favorite food of rodents. An Aspen Tribune article of 1892 claimed, “ultra-marine blue in paper acid chemicals unite to form a disagreeable if not dangerous element. The odor may be nauseating from sulphureted hydrogen gas.” They got the details wrong, but wallpaper was the problem.

The Tribune went on to advise that paper hung on fresh walls would be safe because the lime in the plaster walls would disinfect and sterilize the paste, thus “preventing the development of disease germs especially in sleeping rooms.” The Tribune suggested that old wallpaper be removed before new paper was hung, especially in warm rooms. It was thought that cold rooms did not spread bad air.

A 1900 article advised readers on how to test for arsenic: “Take a piece of paper, light it and if arsenic be present you will notice an odor present like that of garlic. Or, pour a little diluted hydrochloric acid, if greens in pattern turn blue, it’s arsenic.”

This week’s column is presented as a public service to owners of Aspen’s Victorian homes. If you haven’t been feeling well, especially after sleeping in a bedroom with green wallpaper, ask your doctor about the symptoms of arsenic poisoning.


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