Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Poison Green

The words Poison Green may bring a color to mind. Some think of the lime green we find in so many 19th-century quilts. Others see an institutional green or the Nile green in quilts from the 1930s and '40s.

Poison green is the topic of my subscription newsletter on dating quilts this week, so I've been doing research in Google Books, looking at 19th-century dye manuals to find out what shade the color is and how poison it was. There definitely was a poison green,  green dyes and pigments based on copper arsenate---arsenic. Chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) discovered arsenic's use as a coloring agent in 1778.

Variations became extremely popular for dyeing and printing cloth and wallpaper and, worst of all, for food coloring. Before pure food and drug laws the only testing was trial and error on the part of the consumer. Decades went by before people realized that coloring marzipan with copper arsenate was an extreme health hazard. Wallpaper and silks also could sicken, if not kill.

Scheele was a victim of his own chemical experiments, dying at 44 in 1786, long before Scheele's green was found to be poisonous.

A fashion plate from Godey's gives new meaning to the the term "fashion victim."

In the first half of the 19th-century green silk dresses were quite the mode. Fashionable homes required a Green Room---below is the Green Room at the White House about 1875.


By the 1860s people became aware of the toxic qualities in Scheele's green. Pale green fashion fell out-of-fashion, until a better, non-toxic mint green became available in the 1920s.

From what I can tell the arsenic greens produced a color much like the kitchen greens in our memory.

Someone's "before" bathroom remodeling photo. The tiles are plastic and the color is poison green.

Read more about Poison Green
Read the history of the White House Green Room, a timeline of taste and the color green.


  1. Very interesting! It's sort of a color that clings to memories... parts of our house were painted this color, And some how, I find them comforting... Poison colored and all!

  2. Hello, new to your blog but enjoyed the article about poison green.. how interesting..Will put you on my sidebar and maybe you could hop over and visit my new blog..I am only going a week but really love it and your fabrics..Hah!!!

  3. The color of that bathroom tub resembles Fire King jadeite dishes.

    My mother always painted most of the rooms in our house a kind of poison green--and I now live in a home that we had painted a different shade of green--I guess the green gene runs deep.

  4. That is not the color that comes to mind when I think of poison green!!!!
    interesting...off to read the article

  5. This is fascinating. I think there was a murder mystery written about death by wallpaper which involved the arsenic properties of green. Maybe Sherlock Holmes? Hmmm, I can't remember. Thanks so much for researching this!


  6. I remember, as a small child, during WWII, my cousin and I would mix up KoolAid using saccharin as a sweetener. We liked green Koolaid but my grandmother always urged us to make orange or red, The green, she said, reminded her of arsenic, a poison. I suppose she was familiar with arsenic because she was a gardener. She was also a quilter.