Design With a Dark Side

From substances we now avoid, like lead and arsenic, to manufacturing techniques with deadly or madness-inducing effects, the history of useful and beautiful things has always come with a side of spookiness. Read on to learn the truths and fictions behind history's most notorious home stories.

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Photo By: Courtesy of William Morris Style Archive

Photo By: Courtesy of William Morris Style Archive

Photo By: Courtesy of Farrow & Ball

Photo By: Courtesy of Farrow & Ball

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Photo By: Adrian Henson

The Long History of Lead Poisoning

The toxic effects of lead — which can cause everything from developmental delays and learning disabilities to hearing loss, seizures and death — have been a very big deal for a very long time. Some historians argue that lead-heavy diets and tainted water among aristocrats contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Contemporary accounts of Renaissance masters like Caravaggio and Michelangelo, in turn, speak of their wasted limbs — a result of the “painter’s disease” they suffered (after licking their brushes and long exposure to the fumes of their lead-based paint). Widespread acknowledgment and full awareness of those effects, on the other hand, didn’t occur until the 19th century — and the United States didn’t ban lead paint for more than a century after that. So, what took so long?

Getting the Lead Out

Adding lead to paint accelerates the drying process, it makes painted surfaces more durable when they’re dry and it helps those surfaces resist damage from moisture. Classical artists favored oil paint pigmented with white lead, shipwrights used it to maintain and waterproof vessels, and by the dawn of the 20th century, it was used for everything from homes to children’s toys. That said, it was linked to childhood lead poisoning as early as 1900, European countries began banning it in 1909, and the U.S.-based National Lead Company admitted lead was a poison in 1921. America didn’t follow its Continental neighbors in banning lead paint (which many of them did in 1922) because our lead industry fought tooth and nail for decades to resist regulations of its products and interests.

Lead Paint Bans Begin

Baltimore became the first American city to ban lead pigments in 1950, and in 1955, the paint industry adopted a voluntary standard of no more than 1% lead in paint by weight for interior uses. (This was a staggering change: before 1940, interior paints were 50% lead on average). The tide against lead paint was turning, but it turned slowly: a nationwide ban on lead-based paint use for structures built or maintained by the federal government didn’t take effect until 1978. As of 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development reported that an estimated 23 million housing units still have at least one lead-based paint hazard.

How We Tackle Lead Paint Now

If your home was built after 1978, it should be free and clear of lead paint. If your home is older than that, on the other hand, exposure to old lead from chips in existing paint (or renovations that create airborne dust from that existing paint) is a possibility — and you might want to consider hiring a lab to test the paint on your property, determine its composition and minimize exposure to any lead you might find.

Learn More: Lead Paint

Moody Lighting

Gas lamps like this one — a vintage fixture in a Southern Pacific train car — revolutionized everything from city streets and factory work to transportation and life in private homes in the Victorian era. Instead of lighting their rooms with lamp oil, candles and fireplaces, home and business owners could contract with a fuel company and have gas piped directly to permanent interior fixtures that they could light and control — to an extent — with valves. In practice, gas light was as problematic as it could be inconsistent, suffocating, toxic and even explosive for unlucky users, and the well-lit streets, extended work hours and convenience it offered came at an awfully high cost. For the first half-century after Thomas Edison demonstrated the first electric light, most Americans still used gas lamps and candles to light their way — but by 1925, half the homes in the country were electrified (and their inhabitants breathed easier).

All That Glitters

As anyone who’s had the misfortune of dropping an old glass thermometer knows, mercury is liquid at room temperature. Mercury gilding (or fire-gilding) is the 2,000-year-old process of combining mercury with either silver or gold to create a spreadable mixture that can be used to coat other objects; when that mixture is then heated to 675 degrees Fahrenheit, the mercury evaporates and that silver or gold is left behind in a thin layer (as on the delicate, mercury-gilded brass decorations on this 18th-century French cabinet). Unfortunately, inhaling that poisonous mercury vapor results in erethrism, a neurological disorder once known as ‘mad hatter’s disease’ (and immortalized by the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) because hatmakers were exposed to mercury nitrate. When gold electroplating (an inferior but easier and far safer process) rose to prominence in the middle of the 19th century, the delicate, dangerous art of mercury gilding all but disappeared.

Wherefore Art Thou Mercury?

A 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control on a series of mercury-leaking pieces in New York State (and the national news items it generated) sent antique dealers and aficionados — as well as mercury glass owners — scurrying to their cabinets. Could their stately old items (or glimmering new pieces) be exposing them to toxic mercury? Well, yes and no. The incidents in the report involved three antique pendulum clocks, a barometer, a lamp, a mirror — and no so-called mercury glass. Though Venetian artisans once used thin layers of mercury to create mirrors, “mercury”-silvered tableware was created by blowing double-walled glass vessels and placing a solution of silver nitrate and sugar between those walls. Long story short: neither antique nor contemporary art glass (like the “mercury glass” pictured here) poses a hazard to its admirers. If you suspect another antique of containing mercury and having a damaged seal, on the other hand, you should call your local health department and let the pros handle it.

Arsenic's Vivid History

Arsenic had a well-established reputation as a lethal substance — it was known as both the “king of poisons” and the “poison of kings,” and Hippocrates described its toxicity back in 370 BCE — when arsenic compounds became popular as pigments. Invented in the late 18th century by a chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the vivid dyes that came to be known as Scheele’s Green and Paris Green were created when he combined sodium carbonate, arsenious oxide and copper sulfate to create copper arsenite. Scheele himself knew that the arsenic-based hues he’d created (and which came to be used on everything from clothing and artificial flowers to food and wallpaper) shared their element of origin’s toxicity, and according to color historian Victoria Finlay, he wrote to a friend that the public might want to know that. Apparently he didn't make much of an effort to be sure that they did (as Finlay put it, “what’s a little arsenic when you’ve got a great color to sell?”).

Arsenic vs. Arts and Crafts

Enter William Morris, a wealthy British designer, writer, and eventual Socialist activist who was an exemplar of the Arts and Crafts movement. The design business he cofounded in 1861 to manufacture and sell decorative products became synonymous with well-made and beautiful things. For a time, Morris himself was associated with his family’s investment in Devon Great Consols, one of the world’s greatest producers of arsenic. (The iconic Morris & Co. Acanthus pattern, pictured here in its current form, was once printed with arsenic — as were hundreds of other designs in Victorian homes.) When grim reports began to circulate that wallpapers with arsenic salt pigments could be sickening and even killing consumers, he wasn’t convinced: a year after he stopped using the pigments in his own designs, he wrote in a private letter that “[a]s to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is harder possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”

Scientists Chime In

In terms of specific accusations levied against the arsenic-tinted wallpapers Victorians loved so well, some researchers now argue that evidence supports Morris’s skepticism. In his time, scientists speculated that damp wallpaper supported the growth of a fungus that produced an arsenic compound that could be toxic to those who inhaled or ingested it. By 1945, it was ultimately determined that the gas’s toxicity is low, and the fungus that produces it wouldn’t do so very effectively in the presence of high concentrations of arsenic. Ironically, by the time even the earliest determinations about that compound were made, producers like Jeffrey & Co. (who printed wallpaper for Morris) had already transitioned to pigments based on zinc oxide and cobalt green. After decades of rumor involving arsenic-tinted paper, the public’s disinterest in the possibility of flirting with danger for the perfect verdant hue made a strong case for moving on.

Fresh Greens

Super-saturated garden greens like the ones Morris & Co. produced during the 19th-century wallpaper craze are popular anew in the 21st. Morris & Co. is still celebrated for the iconic patterns it introduced more than 130 years ago and produces today, and Lucinda Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever functions as both a history of what Victorian society did and didn’t appreciate about arsenic and as an undeniably stunning record of those papers (its 250 color reproductions of arsenic-based designs are still dazzling) Modern takes on those hues are a world away from their Victorian forebears, of course: Farrow & Ball’s Hegemone (pictured here) is printed on sustainably-sourced paper with water-based paint that contains minimal volatile organic compounds.

'Arsenic' in 2020

Farrow & Ball’s eco-friendly, low-VOC take on arsenic, in turn, is called … Arsenic. (The company also offers evocatively named tones like Dead Salmon and Sulking Room Pink.) “Arsenic has a lively, stimulating feel despite its name being derived from the poison that was rumoured to have been in the wallpaper that poisoned Napoleon after his capture,” the company reports. In fairness, it’s worth noting that after analyzing samples of the Emperor’s hair from different stages of his life as well as samples taken from his son and Empress Josephine, scientists concluded in 2008 that Napoleon absorbed arsenic throughout his life, and the wallpaper in his prison on St. Helena wasn’t to blame for his demise.

Food, Folks and Formaldehyde

Many of us are now familiar with the idea of avoiding chemical fumes in our homes by sidestepping common products like particle board furniture and vinyl shower curtains that “off-gas” chemicals like formaldehyde that can irritate your respiratory system. (Pros say that if you can’t avoid bringing them into your home altogether, you can ask sellers to let them off-gas before delivery or store them in your garage or on the patio before bringing them inside.) An extremely common source of formaldehyde we don’t hear much about: gas stoves. According to ongoing and emerging research, “gas stoves may be exposing tens of millions of people to levels of air pollution in their homes that would be illegal outdoors under national air quality standards.” That’s not due to a malfunction; nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde are emitted as a matter of course when natural gas is burned. That’s why venting hoods, open windows for ventilation and even indoor plants that can scrub pollutants from the air are so important in homes with gas ranges. Speaking of pollutant-scrubbing plants…

Man's Best Friend's Worst Enemies?

While some plants can effectively remove contaminants from indoor spaces, they can also prove toxic for four-legged companions. The easygoing peace lily (above), for example, breaks down and neutralizes both carbon monoxide and formaldehyde; it also contains insoluble calcium oxalates that can cause everything from oral irritation and vomiting to difficulty swallowing and breathing for dogs and cats. In fact, nearly all of the indoor plants on that previously mentioned list of environment-scrubbing varieties are toxic (the bamboo palm and Gerbera daisy are in the clear). Be sure to consult the ASPCA’s toxic and non-toxic plants list before bringing a new green baby home.

The Other Side of Oleander

Hardy, showy oleander shrubs are distributed so widely around the globe that no one’s quite sure where the sturdy beauties first grew. One thing on which absolutely everyone agrees? They’re incredibly deadly for both humans and animals (a single ingested leaf can kill a child, and a lethal dose of green oleander leaves for a cow or horse is just .0005% of its weight). Happily, the nauseating taste of oleander sap (“much like a rotten lemon,” according to the International Oleander Society) is more than enough to discourage most creatures from ingesting it, but it is so toxic that its branches should be avoided as skewers for food and it should never be used as firewood. (The authors of Poisonous Plants of California report accounts of both Alexander the Great’s and Napoleon’s soldiers dying after barbecuing meat with oleander sticks.) If the temperature in your region dips below 35 degrees Fahrenheit and you need to overwinter your oleander indoors, be sure to give it a very wide berth. Throughout the year, you should wear gloves while pruning it, wash your hands thoroughly afterward and disinfect your pruning shears in equal parts alcohol and water for five minutes.

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