Monday, March 14, 2011

Want: Harmless wallpaper

As someone who grew up in a house lousy with 70s-era wallpaper, I am amazed to realize that some people actually put the stuff in their homes on purpose. The little-drummer boy–themed print in my childhood bedroom may be at the root of any number of commitment issues—I know what it means to live with something for the long term, after all.

But A. E. Youman’s contemporaries had even better reasons to avoid wallpaper: it could kill them. According to Bill Bryson’s almost unspeakably wonderful 2010 book At Home, in the late nineteenth century 80 percent of English wallpapers contained arsenic. Although it had long been known (and used) as a poison, the element nonetheless turned up in green-hued wallpaper and paints, patent medicines, and face powders.

Symptoms of arsenic poisoning begin with headaches, disorientation, and drowsiness, and progress to diarrhea, vomiting, cramping muscles, hair loss, and stomach pain. From there, you run into the most well-known symptom of arsenic poisoning: death.

No wonder, then, that the Dictionary of Every-day Wants includes an entry on spotting this potential killer.

(click to enlarge)

All those constitutional trips to the countryside in Victorian novels are probably the direct result of environmental poisoning—if your wallpaper is making you sick, the best treatment probably really is a vacation. Bryson notes that Fredrick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park, found his cure a bit more simply: he moved to the bedroom across the hall.

There was one bright side to an arsenic-scented boudoir, though: rooms with green wallpaper were rarely host to bedbugs.