How deadly was the high-fashion color of Paris Green?

The toxic dye used in fashionable gowns had been made from copper and arsenic. 

Could a beautiful gown actually kill people? 

It would be hard to believe that one dress could cause the illnesses or deaths of hundreds of people—but that’s exactly what happened.  One evening in 1863, at the Paris opera, all heads turned when a breathtaking vision appeared in the glow of gaslights. 

It was Empress Eugenie, and what was she wearing?

Empress Eugenie of France was lovely herself, of course, but it was the shimmering emerald green dress that was getting all the attention.  It was a most vivid green—a green that had not been seen before in social circles.  It was a color that did not get washed out in the lamps of the day, like other hues of green tended to do.

Talk about the remarkable gown would not die down and every female tried to find a way to get her hands on her own similar gown in what was now called Paris Green.  Paris Green became such a rage that it was used to paint walls, to color wallpaper, and all kinds of luxurious fabrics coveted by fashionable females.

Before they all went wild, in frenzies of tone and hue, they should have paid better attention to what was happening nearby in an artificial flower factory.  There, incapacitating illnesses and skin lesions appeared on a regular basis in the workers who assembled the lovely green artificial flowers.

The flowers were Paris Green before anyone called them that, but the recipe for making that shade of green was the same everywhere.  Copper mixed with arsenic produced a green dye that seemed to create color vibrations.  The dye was soon coloring everything:  paper, candy, and even toys.  Toys?

An attentive physician, a respected doctor who had served as a consult to Napoleon himself, made the connection between the sores, lesions, and illnesses when he toured the flower factory.  He saw the results of contact with the dye on the arms and hands of the doomed workers.  The whites of one poor woman’s eyes actually turned green.

Artists knew the color only as Emerald Green—this toxic paint appeared in great works by Turner, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Cezanne and Van Gogh.

An earlier version of the green, Scheele’s Green, formulated in 1775 by Charles Scheele, was overused in wallpaper.  The toxic wallpaper had an additional danger.  An arsine gas was actually released into the air if it became wet or damp and started to deteriorate. 

It was deadly. 

It was also used to dye the carpets which were pounded by everyone’s feet, daily.  Emerald Green, Scheele’s Green, and Paris Green were pretty much the same thing at the time, and made the same way—copper and arsenic.  Paris Green is the name that stuck, the name with the deadly connotation.

Attempts to enforce regulations against the color did not happen until 1895.  The color was so coveted that the many deaths and illnesses were ignored in the process of being fashionable in attire and décor. 

Paris Green was actually used in the early part of the 20th Century as an insecticide, especially for mosquitoes, and as a rat poison.  It was very effective but had side effects—effects that transferred to humans.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from the Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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