Toxic Beauty: Poisonous Colours in the Artificial Flower Industry

Editor’s note: It’s EHN’s five-year anniversary this week! Like in previous years, we’ll be celebrating all week long by featuring exciting work every day to mark the occasion. Today, we kick off by sharing one of our Top 3 pieces since 2018, a post by Amelie Bonney on the dark side of beauty and the artificial flower industry in the nineteenth century (originally published on April 30, 2020).

Disease, death, and pollution are not the first words that usually come to mind when thinking about colour. Western culture’s predominant focus on the sense of sight means that we are likely to primarily think of the aesthetic quality or the symbolic value of a colour rather than about the ways in which its production and use affect our other senses and the wider environment.[1] This partly explains why certain forms of pollution and ensuing diseases have consistently been minimised or overlooked, as also pointed out by Ela Miljkovic in a piece here on EHN. When new shades of colour such as emerald green or mauve were discovered by chemists during the nineteenth century, many contemporaries were smitten with these beautiful, attractive colours and were quick to describe them as a true wonder of science, bolstering narratives of scientific progress with a lasting legacy. And yet, the history of these colours is far from being as bright and revolutionary as these histories of industrial and scientific progress suggest.

Curious minds perusing nineteenth-century books and press articles will encounter accounts of poisoned painters, artisans and fashionistas alongside entertaining murder stories involving pigments and dyes containing toxic chemical components such as arsenic, lead, or mercury. Some of these dangerous colours, such as white lead or the arsenic-based orpiment, have been known since Antiquity. The first Industrial Revolution, however, marked a turning point in the history of colour. From the first decades of the nineteenth century onwards, the intensification of mining in industrialising countries as well as large-scale industrial production meant that toxic colours could be used more widely.[2] Concurrently, the division of labour within workshops and factories further endangered those who worked with them, and rendered the working environment so insalubrious that it could become lethal.

Among the many poisonous garments and fashion accessories produced during the period, artificial flowers were used to adorn hats, dresses and even women’s hair. Often also found in home parlours, artificial flowers are just one example among the many domestic and fashion accessories of the period that illustrate how a seemingly harmless product could render the working and domestic environments toxic.

Les Modes Parisiennes, n°1039 (January 24, 1863).
[Image Description: An illustration of various flowers and other foliage arranged through braided ropes and other similar materials. At the bottom of the image is a pair of black industrial gloves holding pink-red flowers.]

From the 1850s onwards, artificial flowers became particularly fashionable in Britain but their production was not subject to factory inspection.[3] However, flower-makers were particularly susceptible to develop arsenic poisoning as the flowers they created were made out of fabric coated with arsenical pigments such as Scheele’s green or emerald green. These two colours were frequently used to tinge the leaves of artificial flowers. While the pigments adhered to the paper and to the worker’s hands, they also generated arsenical dust within the workspace. In 1859, French hygienist Maxime Vernois documented the hardship of workers in the industry, noting how arsenical dust made the workshops insalubrious and providing sketches illustrating the ailments that workers developed due to constant exposure to paint itself.[4]

Maxime Vernois, Accidents Caused by the Use of Green Arsenic (1859), Wellcome Collection, Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
[Image Description: Illustration of various angles of hands and fingers showing hand injuries. A greenish dust coats the hands.]

Yet flower-making involved more than just one toxic substance. The yellow dye picric acid and the red dye fuchsine, an aniline dye derived from the distillation of coal-tar, were also dangerous to handle. In 1876, the doctor and member of the Academy of Medicine Auguste-Louis-Dominique Delpech (1818-1880) described how some flower-makers were in the habit of licking their fingers to better handle the coloured papers and fabrics they had to assemble, thus ingesting part of the colour.[5] According to his observations, picric acid poisoned two young women working in the trade, causing their tongues to swell to such an extent that they could no longer eat.[6] Workers were further at risk of developing aniline poisoning, for example when crafting red roses using fuchsine. This colour contained the toxic substance benzine and could also contain traces of arsenic. Workers frequently developed headaches, became nauseous and anaemic, and could die from overexposure to the substance. In 1877, forensic surgeon Eduard Hofmann and chemist Ernst Ludwig from the University of Vienna investigated the death of a mother and her daughter, who had both been artificial flower-makers. They performed an autopsy of the bodies and concluded that fuchsine had poisoned both women.[7]

The history of toxic colours in the artificial flower trade invites scholars to further investigate the gendered dimension of occupational diseases in the nineteenth century, which only few historians of the field have addressed.[8] While women working in large industries and workshops were frequently exposed to toxic colours, they were not the only ones at risk. In a flower-making manual published in 1854, Elisabeth Bayle-Mouillard mentions that children also worked in the trade, while middle-class ladies pursued artificial flower-making as a hobby.[9] Male workers were exclusively hired to dye the fabrics, and were thus exposed in different ways.[10] At the turn of the nineteenth century, new legislation, such as the 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act in Britain and a 1898 law on workplace accidents in France, guaranteed a minimal protection for workers using toxic substances, but its efficacy was limited. Manufacturers increasingly subcontracted work to impoverished families, who worked at home. New factory health and safety regulation did not apply in the domestic sphere, further exposing the poorest classes—mostly women and children—to occupational poisoning caused by this dangerous cocktail of toxic colours.

Photograph from the  records of the U.S. National Child Labor Committee (1912), Wikimedia Open Access.
[Image Description: A sepia-toned photograph showing women and children sitting around a table in a historic kitchen. They are sorting materials onto the table.]

Existing literature on the history of occupational diseases has focused predominantly on male workers, or discussed occupational diseases without taking into account gender variations. While histories of the toxicity of dyes and their effect on fashion exist, the main focus is often on the consumer rather than the worker. Much still remains to be explored regarding the ways in which various socio-economic categories were endangered by toxic substances such as colours in the workplace and beyond.

Today, as in the past, it is easy to avoid giving much thought to the dyes that enliven our clothes and colour our food, or to the paint that beautifies our furniture and our children’s toys. Captivated by the beauty of the object or fascinated by its utilitarian aspects, we forget to think about its creation—the chemicals involved, their effects on the environment and on the bodies of those who made it, as well as their effects on our own bodies and our own environment. Artificial flowers went out of fashion in the aftermath of the First World War, but some dangerous dyes and pigments—such as white lead—continue to poison us and our environments today and deserve more attention in contemporary scholarship.

[1] David Howes and Constance Classen, “Introduction: Ways and Meanings,” in Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 1-13; Robert Jütte, “Classifications: The Hierarchy of the Senses,” in A History of the Senses: From Antiquity to Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: Malden, 2005), 54-71.

[2] In the first decades of the nineteenth century, technological changes in the metalliferous mining industry made deeper and large-scale mineral extraction possible, as demonstrated in Catherine Mills’s Regulating Health and Safety in the British Mining Industries, 1800-1914 (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010).

[3] See e.g. Peter Bartrip, “A Kind of Dread: Arsenic and Occupational Health,” in The Home Office and the Dangerous Trades. Regulating Occupational Disease in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Amsterdam: Clio Medica, 2002), 140.

[4] Maxime Vernois, “Mémoires sur les accidents produits par l’emploi des verts arsenicaux, chez les ouvriers fleuristes en général, et chez les apprêteurs d’étoffes pour fleurs artificielles en particulier,” in Revue d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale, 2/12 (Paris, J-B Baillière et fils, 1859).

[5] Workers were not paid an hourly rate but based on the number of flowers they made, which acted as an incentive to work faster. See e.g. “Les métiers féminins: La fabrication de la fleur artificielle,” Le petit journal du parti social français (19 April 1908).

[6] “Note sur quelques accidents industriels développés sous l’influence de l’acide picrique,” Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale (1876).

[7] Eduard Hofmann and Ernst Ludwig, “Chronische Arsenikvergiftung durch technische Verwendung von Fuchsin,” Medizinische Jahrbücher 4 (1877), 503-512.

[8] See e.g. Carolyn Malone, Women’s Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England, 1880-1914 (London, UK: Royal Historical Society, 2003); Barbara Harrison, Not Only the ‘Dangerous Trades’: Women’s Work and Health in Britain, 1880-1914 (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 1996); Judy Lown, Women and Industrialisation: Gender and Work in the Nineteenth Century (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press,1990); Alison Matthews David, “Entangled and Strangled: Caught in the Machine,” in Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present (London, UK: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2015),126-145.

[9] Elisabeth-Félicie Bayle-Mouillard, Nouveau manuel complet du fleuriste artificiel (Paris: Librairie Encyclopédique de Roret, 1854), 3.

[10] See e.g. Elisabeth Piquet, “Les Fleurs du mal: Les maladies professionnelles des ouvriers en fleurs artificielles en France (1839-1819),” MA thesis, University of Valenciennes (2014).

*Cover image: Flower Makers (1896) by Samuel Melton Fisher (1859-1939); Walker Art Gallery, licensed under CC BY-NC.
*[Cover Image Description: A painting of a group of women working in an indoor workshop, sorting and arranging colorful flowers.]