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Poison paper: The MSU chemist who sounded alarm about a popular 19th century design trend


In the 19th century, wallpaper became an increasingly popular home decor trend among Americans. Influenced by the culture of Victorian England, these wallpapers were adorned with loud patterns, flowers, animals, and a lot of colors.

But those bright, vibrant hues held a dark secret.  

“In the mid-19th century, green became a very popular color. And the way to get the various hues of green was to mix it with arsenic,” explained the Michigan History Center's Rachel Clark. 

Michigan State University chemist Dr. Robert Kedzie began alerting the public to the dangerous decorating trend in 1873. Kedzie had discovered that people, and especially children, were being poisoned by dust in their homes caused by arsenic-laced wallpaper, toys, and other household items. 

"So, the U.S. Express Company, which was an early mail company, they would wrap their packages, and their labels were made with this green tint," said Clark. 

Kedzie took his findings to the Michigan Board of Health and voiced his concerns about the widespread use of arsenic in consumer products. Then, in 1874, he published 100 copies of a book titled Shadows from the Walls of Death. The book contained 86 physical samples of wallpaper patterns printed using arsenic. 

“He was sending out these examples to universities and libraries all over the state so people could be educated on what exactly this poison wallpaper looked like,” said Clark. 

Over time, the industry found other ways to create green colors without using poisonous materials. While most copies of Kedzie's book were destroyed, there are five remaining copies stored at university libraries and at the Michigan History Museum. It's not the kind of book you can check out with a library card, however. 

"It is stored encased in multiple layers of plastic, and I had to wear multiple layers of gloves and a mask as I was looking through it," said Clark. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Katie Raymond. 

This segment is produced in partnership with theMichigan History Center.

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