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  • Writer's pictureLucy Bentley

Witch Fever: The Story Behind the Collection

‘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’ – William Morris

Arsenic was prevalent in the Victorian home, often used as an ingredient in soaps and skincare, food and confectionery, but did you know this deadly white powder was also hiding in wallpaper? 

In 1775, Swedish chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new vivid green pigment, more vibrant than any in existence. This brilliant new colour, Scheele’s Green, was possible thanks to the addition of copper arsenite; this compound was often viewed as a waste product from mining, yet when added to a pigment it made it far more durable and the colour more brilliant. 

These qualities soon made such pigments popular in the manufacturing of wallpaper and textiles. Despite arsenic being a known poison, it was believed to be harmless in these applications providing the products were not licked or ingested. This was true to a degree; when kept dry the pigments were perfectly stable, however once damp or mouldy, they would release a fine powder onto the surface and into the atmosphere – arsenic. When inhaled or absorbed through the skin, this arsenic powder could prove deadly. So how did the dangers of these pigments go undetected for so long?

Arsenic poisoning was often difficult to detect, with symptoms such convulsions, nausea and diarrhoea it could easily be misdiagnosed as common illnesses such as cholera or dysentery; it initially gave no reason for the pigments to be suspected. 

Doubts began to arise when people started to come down with illness after recently wallpapering their homes, or when sick individuals travelled and felt better, before becoming ill once again when returning to their wallpapered homes. However, the poisoning would affect some worse than others. For example, children were more susceptible to it than adults, so more often than not the whole household would not be showing symptoms of poisoning, making it hard to prove it really was the wallpaper causing it. 

Even socialist designer William Morris was using arsenical dyes in his products despite being an advocate for safe and fair working conditions for his staff; early designs such as Trellis, Larkspur and Fruit all tested positive for the compound. When suspicion arose that such dyes were killing people in their own homes, Morris denied it. Writing to his friend on the subject, he stated that ‘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.’ Here Morris implied that he thought the doctors were using the dyes as a scapegoat for illnesses which they couldn’t otherwise diagnose, in a way similar to how people would blame their own misfortune on witch craft. Interestingly, Morris inherited his fortune from his father’s shares in a copper mine – a bi-product of such mining being arsenic. However, a link between this and his attitudes towards the safety of the dyes has not been proven. 

Eventually, people began to believe that it really was the wallpapers which were killing them in their own homes, and began to insist on arsenic-free alternatives. The designers and manufacturers complied, even Morris stopped using the dyes, and wallpapers began to be advertised as ‘arsenic-free,’ becoming much safer for use in the home.

The 'Witch Fever' collection plays on this idea of a hidden killer in the home, alluding to the poisonous qualities of such prints through colour and symbolic imagery, allowing you to translate a piece of history into the modern home.

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