top of page
  • Writer's pictureHolly Ann Scoggins

What a Pretty Poison

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

“Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.” —Oscar Wilde

Painting, John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851

Have you ever loved something so much even though you know it's bad for you..... a toxic infatuation? Well so did Napoleon.... but we will get to that later.

To 21st-century consumers, Green is a verb. Green is eco-friendly, sustainable, and energy-efficient. Add a little green to product packaging and you can convince any buyer the product is safe. Green branding pulls at our heartstrings, makes us feel healthy, and simultaneously fertilizes the pockets of big business. Next time you go shopping pay attention to how green is used to sell you food or cleaning products. Are these products actually safe or are you being manipulated by clever branding? Green reminds us of lush fields of grass and springtime.. a vision of fertility and safety. Writer Katie Keheller states "Pantone chose Greenery as 2017’s color of the year….the decision was intended to help sway the public towards embracing more eco-friendly trends and policies," But green has not always been so safe...

In 1775 Chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele accidentally stumbled upon an easy and cheap way to make a vibrant green dye and it was quickly used on home goods, toys, clothing, and gasp... food. Scheele's discovery met a demand because light-fast and brilliant green colorings were hard to come by in the 18th century. Green fades and changes with time.. it is quite the fickle color. Scheele knew his green concoction was likely not safe, but the full toxicity of arsenic compounds was not fully understood so he moved forward regardless. Color historian Victoria Finlay wittingly states But what’s a little arsenic when you’ve got a great new color to sell?” Give me the money! I'll take one green jello to-go, please.

Maybe coincidence, or because of Scheele's discovery, green began to trend with the upper class. Do you need Emerald green curtains? a Paris green dress? or a foliage-laced rug? Coming right up! Scheele's green consumer goods were all the rage. Meanwhile, journals contained reports of children wasting away in bright green rooms, ladies in green dresses swooning, and newspaper printers being overcome by arsenic vapors. One example includes an acute poisoning of children attending a Christmas party where green candles were burned. Artificial flower makers (who were in high demand in the early to mid 19th century ) were suffering and dying. In 1859, Dr. Ange-Gabriel-Maxime Vernois visited young flower makers, stopping to examine their bodies. He saw yellowed nails, ragged cuticles, and sore-laden arms. In the "creases of their elbows, he found caked the same brilliant green dust. It was arsenic-laced dye, emerald-hued and blisteringly poisonous." In 1861, Matilda Scheurer, a 19-year-old flower maker, died of “accidental” poisoning. Historian Alison Matthews David. states " She vomited green waters; the whites of her eyes had turned green, and she told her doctor that ‘everything she looked at was green.’" It was confirmed through an autopsy that her death was caused by arsenic she inhaled from dusting artificial leaves with a green powder. Her Suffering and death ( and the death of countless others) were caused by the demanding market for green vanity.

Why so vain? During this time period, European city dwellers were interested in bringing nature to their backdoors. The industrial revolution left cities like London feeling grey and smoggy and wealthy inhabitants desired a return to the garden of Eden. Inhabitants and city officials began protecting their public green spaces and encouraging medicinal fresh air. This yearning for a green paradise propagated the use of fake foliage, vegetative patterned interiors, and a lot of green fashion. Even William Morris, the famous pattern maker who endorsed the use of safer pigments in textiles and paper, could not resist the urge to keep using Arsenic based dyes. He was an heir to a copper mine ( which produced arsenic dust) where many workers were falling ill. Finding a safe replacement for its brilliant color was nearly impossible. The British Medical Journal stated in Femme Fatale “Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature. She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ballrooms.”

We like green because we are able to distinguish more shades of the hue than any other visible color. Green is easy for our eyes to look at because it is at the center of the visible spectrum. We are biologically in tune with its subtleties and nuances yet the use of green was not evident in any cave painting or prehistoric artworks. Even though green is in abundance on earth through plants, grass, and algae it is almost nonexistent in outer space….this must be why we color our aliens green!

Prehistoric artisans would use reds, yellows, or blacks because green pigments were almost impossible to come by. ..maybe they did try and use them but they simply faded away over time. The only prehistoric evidence of the creative use of green comes from African crowns inlaid with rough dark green emeralds. Green is ubiquitous in the natural world and has played a unique role in various cultures throughout time. To Romans, green was a color that represented “outsider” as they were only exposed to green fashion by Germanic, Celtic, or near east civilizations groups. Latin languages have a strong use of viridis meaning vigor, growth, and life. To be green meant to be strong, to evolve, and flourish. Green could also be connected etymologically to virtus, meaning courage or virtue. Green grows on us, becoming more significant over time.

For Egyptians, green was synonymous with goodness. Greens depicted fertile growth necessary for abundant offerings to the gods. Neuroscientists and designers have solidified this goodness by determining that certain shades of greens (such as sage or eucalyptus) are the most peaceful and calming of all colors. Painting your interior home with these subdued greens promotes health and overall well-being. Every meal served in a high-end restaurant comes with a dash of greenery whether it is edible or not.... green adds value and communicates safety. Americans associate green with the safety of wealth. The dollar bill is covered in the vines of etched lines depicting quotes and images of prosperity. Americans are not unique though, because, throughout history, Emeralds were a form of currency, a green stone exuding value and rarity. This rarity became easily reproduced with arsenic green. Napoleon, like most of the privileged population, became obsessed with green.

Napoleon's love of green was evident in his beautiful green apartment bedroom at the Chateau de Fontainebleau where he resided for over a decade. He also had green and gold wallpaper in his room where he was in exile at Saint Helena at the end of his life. While in exile, he at times spent up to 7 months indoors, shutting himself away in a damp environment that was likely lethal. Chemist David Jones tested a strip of wallpaper from the Saint Helena room in which Napoleon died and proved that it contained high levels of arsenic. This discovery provides more evidence of his demise than any other murderous conspiracy theory. Italian Biochemist Gosio discovered that "wallpaper containing Scheele's Green became damp, and then became moldy (this was in the days of animal glues) the mold could carry out a neat chemical trick to get rid of the copper arsenite......this vapor was very poisonous indeed. Breathe in enough of the vapor, and you would go down with a nasty case of arsenic poisoning." Ayun Halliday states that " In 2008, an Italian team tested strands of Napoleon’s hair from four points in his life—childhood, exile, his death, and the day thereafter. They determined that all the samples contained roughly 100 times the arsenic levels of contemporary people in a control group." Could it be that Napoleon's death wasn't caused by hired poisoning or murder or even stomach cancer, .. but from the love of green? He said it himself “It is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr.”

By the turn of the 19th century, the public ( except for Britain) had contended with the dangers of Scheele's green, and regulations were put into place to curb its use. The bans started in other parts of Europe and soon spread. Production was down in Europe, but demand did not decrease. This of course moved its treacherous production abroad. Throughout history, we seem to tolerate a certain amount of suffering for the love of aesthetically pleasing products. Do we simply turn a blind eye to suffering when it pads our pockets and makes us look fashionable or younger? Katy Keheller states we have a "willingness to kill ourselves to replicate nature, rather than simply engaging with it." In the 1970s Green parties emerged all over the world demanding safer environmental practices and less poisonous products. But has green simply transformed back into a toxic trend again? Do we greenwash our grocery shelves for economic profit or are we actually making the world safer? Michael Braungart, a German chemist states that “The color green can never be green, because of the way it is made. It’s impossible to dye plastic green or to print green ink on paper without contaminating them.” Maybe we should start paying more attention to what we buy, and what it is made of... or perhaps we should just be like Napoleon and enjoy the wallpaper while we have it.

"When green is all there is to be, It could make you wonder why, But why wonder why wonder, I am green and it’ll do fine, It’s beautiful, and I think it’s what I want to be.”- Kermit the Frog

Need more green art?



bottom of page