The Deadly Victorian Home

Chuck Banner - March 3rd, 2017

People in the Victorian Era lived through a time of rapid change. The Industrial Revolution had swept most of the Western world, and many new inventions were being introduced. A lot of the new innovations were designed to make home life easier and more pleasant. But in an age where consumer safety rules were non-existent, many of these new products turned out to be dangerous, if not downright deadly. As a result, homes in the Victorian era harbored several hidden killers.

Among these deadly domestic creations was a beautiful green dye. Scheele’s Green was one of the most popular colors of the 19th century. It was used in many items, including clothing, wallpaper, and even candy. Unfortunately, the ingredient that gave this color its beloved brilliance was a highly toxic arsenic compound. At that time, it was not well-known that these compounds were poisonous, resulting in the deaths of many people who had vibrant green wallpaper in their homes, when particles flaked off and were inhaled by the inhabitants. The wallpaper also emitted toxic arsenic gas when rooms were heated. Tragically, there were also many cases of children dying after playing with green-painted toys or eating candy colored with Scheele’s green pigment.

Another lethal item lurking in the Victorian home came courtesy of the first manmade plastic. Known today as celluloid, it was originally called parkesine, after its inventor, Alexander Parkes. Patented in 1862, this plastic was used to manufacture items that could only be made previously with expensive materials, such as ivory. Parkesine was used to manufacture hair combs, jewelry, billiard balls, and easy-clean shirt collars. The problem with parkesine is that it is highly flammable and can even self-combust. There is a recorded incident of parkesine buttons on a dress catching fire when its wearer stood near a fireplace. In an era where candles were routinely used, parkesine items were very dangerous to have in the home.

Indoor bathrooms first became popular in the Victorian era, but they could be quite dangerous. On occasion, Victorian bathrooms would spontaneously explode. Sewer systems were outdated, and the toilet’s flushing mechanism was yet to be perfected. The combination of the two led to a situation where waste built up in the sewers and leaked back into homes when toilets were flushed. This was a recipe for disaster as the resulting methane gas from the backed-up waste was flammable. There were many cases of toilets exploding when someone entered a bathroom carrying a candle. Changes to the flushing mechanism of toilets and sewer improvements put an end to this problem by the end of the Victorian era.

Many of the foods people ate could also be deadly. In the Victorian era, food producers started putting adulterants in items like bread and milk so that they could maximize their profits. Bread was routinely adulterated with alum (a compound that is now used in detergents) to make it heavier and whiter. Not only did this make the bread less nutritious, but the alum caused severe intestinal distress and was often fatal when consumed by children in large quantities. Milk was also adulterated, but it was housewives who made the alteration in this case. Boracic acid was used to mask the taste and smell of milk that had gone bad. It could also conceal the fact that the milk contained bovine tuberculosis, which humans can contract. Hundreds of thousands of children in Victorian times died from tuberculosis that they caught from infected milk.

These are just a few of the examples of the deadly items that could be found in the Victorian home. Better public services, in the case of improved sanitation and sewers, ended some of the dangers by the dawn of the 20th century. But it would be many years before food safety laws, product testing, and consumer product regulations put an end to the era where every home was a potentially poisonous, flammable death trap.

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