Suzannah Lipscomb nominates five potential 19th-century death traps – from wallpaper to children's toys.
This article was first published in April 2013
1) Death by wallpaper
The introduction of oil and gas lamps, and the abolition of window taxes, meant that, for the first time, the Victorian middle classes could put deep, vivid colours on their walls. There was a particular fashion for wallpapers in Scheele’s Green, a brilliant, long-lasting green which was made from copper arsenite and therefore, unbeknownst to many consumers, potentially poisonous. The Times estimated that Victorian British homes contained 100 square miles of arsenic-rich wallpaper.
2) Painted toys
Brightly coloured Victorian children’s toys were commonly painted with lead paint. Children are always likely to put their toys in their mouths, and lead paint was sweet to taste – but one flake could be enough to poison. Lead attacks the nervous system: even mild lead poisoning can cause encephalopathy and damage a child's development.
3) The desirable waist
Victorian women’s corsets could exert enormous amounts of pressure on the inner organs, and distort the liver, constrict the lungs, and even displace the uterus. Besides making basic exercise uncomfortable, they predisposed women to more serious conditions like pneumonia and prolapse of the uterus, and many women continued to wear them during pregnancy, with unhappy results.
4) Heat and light
The late Victorian period saw the introduction of gas lighting and central heating into British homes but at first these were extremely hazardous, as the systems lacked stopcocks and release valves. Stories of exploding stoves and people suffocating as they slept were alarmingly common. Add in electric lighting and the dangers became even greater.
5) Into the mouths of babes
Perhaps the most shocking hidden killer of the Victorian age was the newly developed baby’s feeding bottle. A curved glass bottle to which was attached a piece of rubber tubing and teat provided the perfect incubators for all manner of life-threatening bacteria – and Mrs Beeton advised new mothers that they needn’t wash the teat for the two or three weeks it lasted. So the porous tubing and teat gave the flourishing bacteria direct access into the bodies of the most vulnerable.
This article was written ahead of Suzannah Lipscomb's BBC documentary Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home (BBC Four, Wednesday 3 April 2013, 9pm).