In November 1861, a young English woman of 19 died an oddly green death. Literally.
By the time her odd illness had neared its ultimately fatal conclusion, the whites of her eyes had turned green. She was vomiting a good deal, and that came up green, too.
When, toward the very end, she was foaming at the mouth, it was green foam that stained her lips.
It wasn’t very hard for doctors to identify a likely cause of Matilda Scheurer’s malady, because if the color green was prevalent in her death, it also had been so in her life. Matilda worked as a maker of artificial flowers in a London shop. Much of her job involved dusting a green powder onto artificial leaves.
That green powder was a common coloring agent, also used in dying cloth and other items. One of its two main ingredients was copper. The other? Arsenic trioxide.
In the shop where Matilda worked, sprinkling the green powder created a dust that floated in the air, fell on every surface, and was handled, and inevitably inhaled, by the employees. When they ate, they usually did so with hands green with dust.
Matilda’s “leaf fluffing” job put her in particularly close and continuing contact with the green dust that ultimately permeated her body and began fatally damaging her internal organs.
As she worsened at the end, between her convulsions she was able to tell her attending physicians that everything she saw looked green.
The strange, green illness and death of Matilda Scheurer drew public attention by its sheer novelty and tragedy, and generated awareness of what was happening to others involved in her trade.
London’s Ladies’ Sanitary Association, widely perceived as an upper-crust, snobbish group, demonstrated that the elite have hearts as well: The group championed the situation of impoverished girls such as Matilda as their philanthropic cause. London’s “flower makers” most often were impoverished girls working in enclosed spaces.
Medical investigation sponsored by the LSA found that many of these girls were suffering from skin problems, including bleeding hands and facial sores, and vision issues. One of Matilda’s female co-workers was described as having a face that was “one mass of sores.”
Males who had worked with the green dye powder had hand ulcerations, yellow nails, ugly scars on their legs, and lesions on genitals and inner thighs.
The doctor/chemist who led the investigation concluded, and then publicized, that the arsenic-based colorant was the culprit and was extraordinarily toxic. That finding had implications well beyond the artificial flower trade. The green colorant was ubiquitous, and used in so many ways, that it was hard for anyone to avoid.
Deeper investigation discovered that a popular kind of green gown “so much of late in vogue for ball dresses,” as one contemporary account put it, were saturated with so much arsenic that it accounted for a measurable portion of the garment’s weight.
Astonishingly, a dress made from 20 yards of the green-dyed fabric contained 900 grains of arsenic, some of which would rub off during wear, shedding onto the skin of the wearer and even onto surfaces around them.
It only takes 4 or 5 grams of arsenic to kill an adult. In other words, it was entirely possible to purchase and wear a lethal dress in those days.
There were other green garments, too. A woman in 1871 bought a pair of green gloves at a ritzy store, only to find they caused her hands to blister badly when she wore them.
There was green wallpaper everywhere, as well, dyed with that same arsenic colorant. And matching green carpets that babies played upon.
The marketplace eventually weighed in as the public wised up. Green garments and accessories became less commercially desirable. People simply quit buying them because the color green had become associated with toxicity and death.
These situations were not limited to Britain and Europe. Americans used the dangerous green pigment as well, and faced the same kinds of results. According to Suzanne Hilton’s account of American life during the nation’s 100th year, titled “The Way It Was – 1876,” green dresses in the 1876 United States often made their wearers ill.
Hilton also wrote that American 19th century washerwomen observed that “sometimes a thick green powder would fly off a green dress when it was shaken hard.”
If a 19th century woman survived arsenic dyes, danger continued. There were plenty of other pathways to early death available to those then called “the fairer sex.”
One too-frequent cause of death for women in the years of billowing, long dresses was burning to death in their own clothes. Some of the most attractive dress fabrics also were thin, light and highly flammable, capable of catching a spark and turning a woman into a human torch within moments. And that happened, a lot.
Crinoline petticoats and underskirts heightened the hazard because they caused dresses to spread out so widely at floor level (as much as 6 feet at the base). Wearers could not see the ground around their feet and thus might unknowingly stand above a dropped, still-burning cigar or some other ignition source.
Further, if the garments caught fire, the inverted-funnel shape of crinoline underdresses, or the basket-like “cage crinoline” underskirts that substituted for them — created a chimney effect, pulling raw flame and heat up the legs toward the wearer’s pelvis.
The internet is awash with accounts of women who suffered death or injury in crinoline-related fires.
Britain alone reportedly suffered about 3,000 crinoline-related burning deaths of women in the year 1860. It happened on this side of the pond, too. In the 1850s, The New York Times reported the death of a young woman in Boston who stepped too close to her parlor fire and only minutes later burned to death in her crinolines.
The newspaper estimated there was “an average of three deaths per week from crinolines in conflagration.”
It was a worldwide problem. In December, 1863, a fire broke out in a Jesuit Church in Santiago, Chile, during mass, resulting in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths. Many of the dead were women wearing crinolines, which by their very shape and size made it impossible to vacate the building quickly, and also literally became more fuel for the fire.
One related complication of crinoline fires was that often those in the room with a victim were themselves clad in crinolines and could not give help because of their garments’ bulk, and the fact that, if they drew close, their own clothing would catch fire.
The half-sisters of writer and 19th-century pop culture figure Oscar Wilde died when their evening dresses caught fire in 1871. The second wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died of burns suffered when her dress burned.
Nine ballerinas burned to death in a theater in Philadelphia. In France in late 1862, Emma Livry, one of the best ballerinas of her era, accidentally fluffed out her ballet dress too close to a stage gaslight during a rehearsal, catching the garment on fire. She ran in circles around the stage several times, in flames. She finally was chased down and the fire put out, but only after inflicting burns on 40 percent of her body.
Livry’s corset had melted into her ribs.
She lived for eight painful months before respiratory complications from her burns killed her. During that time, she talked about a method that already existed for fireproofing ballet costumes, one she had rejected.
She said of the fireproof costumes: “Yes, they are less dangerous, but should I ever return to the stage, I would never think of wearing them — they are so ugly.”
The development of celluloid, which became a newer, lighter material from which to make cage crinolines and accessories, was not an advance in terms of fire protection. Celluloid is highly flammable, and further, can degrade over time into constituent chemicals that occasionally self-combust.
For women wearing crinolines, also wearing celluloid hair pins or combs simply added another source of on-the-body fuel should their clothing catch fire.
Men of the 19th century were significantly less prone than women to have their clothes catch fire. They had no spreading skirts, no crinolines, and men’s clothing typically was made of less-flammable materials, such as wool.
Though modern-day luddites may decry the progress of technology, one fact is certain: today’s garments, on the whole, are far safer than the fabric fire hazards that draped the bodies of our 19th century ancestors.
Particularly the ladies.