The Killer Wallpaper that Never Was

Morris’s Pimpernel wallpaper design, registered 1876.
During the 1860s, a press campaign began in Britain to raise awareness concerning what were then believed to be the ‘dangers’ of arsenic in wallpaper. By 1883, the well-known design firm Morris & Co. bowed to public opinion, and all their wallpapers became free from arsenic, despite the fact that Morris thought (rightly so, as it turns out) that the scare was groundless.

Today, two popular accusations are still levelled at William Morris, both loosely related to the arsenic scare: that given his Socialism his directorship of the Devon Great Consols mine (a major source of arsenic) was hypocritical, and that his use of arsenical pigments in wallpapers was an act of mass poisoning owing to the supposed formation of toxic gases (TMAs) by these materials.

Patrick O’Sullivan, editor of the Journal of William Morris Studies, has addressed these criticisms in a forthcoming paper in the Reports and Transactions of the Devon Association for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences: ‘Devon Great Consols and William Morris’. The first is easy to repudiate: Morris relinquished all interest in Devon Great Consols (and ceremoniously sat on his director’s top hat) seven years before becoming a socialist. He did however, before that time, “clearly share in the collective culpability of all mine owners, directors and shareholders of the period for the truly appalling working conditions (at the mine) … ”.

As the new paper highlights, the second accusation is also fundamentally flawed.  An earlier paper on the subject of arsenical wallpapers, ‘The toxicity of trimethylarsine: an urban myth’, by William R. Cullen and Ronald Bentley, (Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 7 (1): DOI: 10.1039/B413752N) states that although TMAs may form in very small quantities under specific conditions—but which are not present in arsenical wallpapers—the gas has “very low toxicity.” They conclude: “It appears to us most likely that TMAs is not and never was a silent poison or killer .… It seems a pity that we should now have to abandon this fascinating urban legend (our italics).”

Throughout his life, Morris remained unconvinced about the alleged dangers of arsenic in wallpapers. In 1885, the year his own wallpapers finally became arsenic free, he wrote to his friend and fellow businessman Thomas Wardle, who had taught Morris about commercial textile bleaching and dyeing. 

As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever. … My belief about it all is that doctors find their patients ailing don’t know what’s the matter with them, and in despair put it down to the wall papers when they probably ought to put it down to the water closet, which I believe to be the source of all illness. And by the by as Nicholson is a tea-totaller he probably imbibes more sewage than other people: though you mustn’t tell him I said so.

The arsenic produced by Devon Great Consols, and many other mines in SW England, was used in more than just wallpapers, and certainly caused serious harm, both at the point of mining, and in the form of some consumer products. But it must be remembered that Morris resigned from the board of that company in 1875, eight years before he took up socialism.

In one sense, Morris’s subsequent career can be seen as an effort to leach the poison back out of the world: ‘Devon Great Consols and William Morris’ argues that Morris’s connection to the mine positively influenced his views on environmental issues, feeding his vision for an ecological society as expressed in his romance novel News from Nowhere (1891). The paper, which also addresses a much broader set of issues than discussed here, is forthcoming. We will announce its release at a later date.

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