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Weird History: When the Color Green Could Kill You

Scheele's green is a vibrant shade of emerald green invented during the 19th century and popularized during the Victorian era. From silk flowers to gowns to wallpaper, Scheele's green was a huge trend. The only problem? It was poisonous.

My favorite color growing up was green. I've always associated it with nature and plant life, but Scheele's green was far from organic. It was invented by a Swedish chemist named Carl Wilhem Scheele in 1775. According to the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, the shade was achieved "by heating up sodium carbonate, adding arsenious oxide, and stirring until the mixture was dissolved. Copper sulfate was then added as the final ingredient which ends up giving it its vibrant green color."

The color was easy and inexpensive to make, which accounts for how quickly and completely it took over the market. Scheele's green and similarly poisonous colors were everywhere and in everything. Remember that long-standing theory that Napoleon was poisoned by arsenic in his wallpaper in 1821? That's because inhaling Scheele green was toxic. When the paint was exposed to moisture or heat, it released what the Saint Louis Art Museum describes as "toxic vapors" that could be breathed in to wreak havoc on your insides.

The most infamous case of green arsenic poisoning occurred almost a century after Scheele's green was invented. And fair warning, it's a grim tale.

Matilda Scheuerer was a 19-year-old artificial flower maker in central London when she died on November 20, 1861. As a flower maker, she was responsible for dusting faux flowers with green powder. This exposed her to large quantities of arsenic on a daily basis and even as her symptoms worsened, she continued to work.

In the 2015 book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David explains that Matilda was inhaling arsenic all the time—but that wasn't all. Due to the pigment, her symptoms took on unique and horrifying qualities. The whites of her eyes turned green. Her fingernails turned green. When she vomited, her stomach contents were green. Near the end, Matilda claimed that everything she saw looked green. After her death, an autopsy showed that the arsenic had made its way into all of her major organs.

Arsenic-based greens were replaced by safer synthetic green dyes in the 1870s. By 1930, arsenic had become a common rat poison component. Alarmingly, arsenic spent more time in the art and fashion scene than it did as a rodent killer. By the late 1980s, the United States stopped using arsenic in rat and ant poison because it was too unsafe.

Oh, and that painting featured at the top of this post? It's called "Die Stickerin" ("Embroidery Woman") and it was painted by Georg Friedrich Kersting in 1812 using oil on canvas. The green hue was achieved with, you guessed it, Scheele's green.

[Image Credit: "Die Stickerin" painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting from Wikimedia Commons]

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