In mid-19th-century England, three things became quite common: the five o’clock tea ☕️, sugar consumption 🍰, and the use of food coloring🍦. This mix could become quite deadly when an afternoon tea hostess would buy ready-made sugar cake decorations. Why? At the time the most vibrant and thus the most eye-pleasing food colors were achieved by adding some pretty dangerous stuff, e.g., copper sulfate for blue, copper arsenite for green, or mercury sulfide for red. ☠️☠️ Also lead was added to achieve different shades depending on the formula. ☠️ Many people got seriously sick and some even died because of the coloring in their sweets. In 1851 nearly 200 people were poisoned by colored lozenges, 17 of whom fatally. This and other fatal events finally led to the passing of the Adulteration of Food and Drink Act of 1860, one of the first focused on food safety.
I found inspiration for this comic in this book all about food and customs around it: The Art of Dining
Many Victorians wanted to have a very pale complexion which was supposed to give them a more aristocratic look. 👻 Because of that, companies started to add arsenic to various cosmetics, including soaps 🧼, lotions, 🧴 and powders . Arsenic was also advised, either in the form of wafers 🍬( e.g. Dr Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers) or fluids 🥛 (e.g. Fowler’s Solution, also used as medicine).
There were known cases of death caused by such treatments, but it didn’t discourage many of the customers. ☠️
Interestingly, prolonged use of arsenic actually darkens the skin, which suggests that the producers might have skimped on the arsenic quantity in their products, thus making them a little bit less deadly.
Scheele’s Green, also known as copper arsenite, was the name of a green coloring that was used in everything from wallpaper 👩🎨 through dresses 👗to toys and candies. 🍭
Thanks to the unique, vibrant look it quickly became a very fashionable color. As you can imagine, the arsenic-loaded dye was very dangerous to people’s health, especially if digested or breathed in. ☠️☠️ The latter could occur as a result of, e.g., molding wallpaper which would release arsine gas.
The toxic nature of Scheele’s Green (and its chemical cousin Paris Green) was unknown to the general public until a series of mysterious deaths and illnesses caught the attention of a few chemists and doctors who then called for boycotting green products. Despite the growing awareness, arsenic-based dyes were in use until the end of the nineteenth century. 😱
See what other dangers waited for the Victorians in their own homes in the “Hidden Killers” documentary series.
Victorian mourning veils were popular accessories worn by grieving women. ⚰️ The veils could be as long as six feet and were traditionally made out of black crape, a scratchy fabric believed to be the most appropriate for mourning. 🖤
Unfortunately, some of the black dyes (like logwood dye) used in the production were quite poisonous, 🐍 causing a variety of ailments from light rashes to serious respiratory problems. Widows were especially affected by these dangers as the Victorian society expected them to wear crape veils for at least a year and a day during the so-called deep mourning stage.