10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day

Larry Holzwarth - December 24, 2017

The Victorian Age was a mass of contradictions. Advances in hygiene and sanitation were shrouded in cities which were filled with the offal of horses and draft animals. In many cities and small towns, hogs freely roamed the streets, helping control the buildup of garbage. Sewers drained directly to rivers and streams, where raw sewage joined industrial waste from meatpackers, manufacturers, chemists, steel mills, and all of the thriving activity of society. The air was filled with smoke from coal, used to warm houses and drive the engines of industry.

In crowded cities the Victorian Age brought about the teeming slums where people packed into areas much too small, and too fetid, to provide a healthful environment. Social reformers called the alarm, and the beginnings of an effort to improve the quality of life for all were initiated. Those who sounded the alarm were at constant risk of poisoning too, from food borne pathogens and those in the air and water. The greater the wealth the greater was the risk of disease and death from poisons. Being exposed to poison increased with social position, since it took money to acquire their sources, ignorant of the dangers. In Europe and America, during the Victorian Age people willingly but unwittingly poisoned themselves in a variety of ways.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
Large cities of the Victorian Age were bustling, crowded areas of commerce and industry. Wikimedia

Here are some examples of how people poisoned themselves in the Victorian Age.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
Along with patent medicines, women’s cosmetics began to be aggressively advertised in the Victorian Age. Miami University library


One of the enduring symbols of the Victorian Age is a woman with a parasol. More than a mere fashion accessory, the parasol performed an important function which seems strange to the sun lovers of today. To a woman in the Victorian Age white skin was supreme, the whiter the better. Women avoided the sun as the enemy which would destroy their healthy and attractive pallor. A parasol was a shield against the rays of the sun. Any woman with a tanned face and arms (about all of the woman’s skin that showed) was considered to be of a lower social order.

To help keep the skin pale enterprising chemists developed products and marketed them aggressively. In the United States, Dr. Campbell offered arsenic wafers, to be eaten like cookies. They would, the advertising promised, “…clear the face of freckles and tan” and were on sale by “druggists everywhere.” They were described as perfectly safe.

Another use of arsenic was soaking in arsenic springs wherever they could be found. Soaking in arsenic springs was frequently recommended to bring the skin to a whiteness which was almost transparent. Once the transparency was achieved it was highlighted by tracing the veins with a pale indigo dye, creating what surely must have resembled one of the popular Dracula’s victims in the last minutes of life.

Some of the effects from prolonged exposure to arsenic are respiratory failure, kidney failure, conjunctivitis, seborrheic keratosis (precancerous growths resembling warts) damage to the nervous system, and hair loss. Arsenic is also addictive, to the extent that as exposure increases so does tolerance, until the amount retained in the body leads to death.

It wasn’t that the Victorians were unaware of the hazards of arsenic exposure. In mystery novels and plays it was a popular plot device, the question being who was poisoning the victim and where was the lethal arsenic being concealed. The desire for a perfect complexion simply overrode the concern. Today the opposite prevails. The damaging effects of prolonged sun exposure, well documented, has had little deleterious effect on the desire for a perfect tan.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
The arsenic in women’s clothes gave off a fine dust when it rubbed against anything, allowing anyone nearby to inhale the poison. National Geographic


Arsenic wasn’t used just to create pale skin. When used in dyes it creates a bright, vivid shade of green, a popular color among the Victorians. Dresses, gloves, shoes, and ornamentals to decorate the hair all contained liberal amounts of arsenic if the shade of green was desired. It may be that the addictive qualities of arsenic contributed to the long popularity of the shade among Victorian women. It wasn’t only in clothes either, wallpaper, drapes, rugs, linens, towels, and other items contained large amounts of the poison.

According to the British Medical Journal edition of February 15, 1862, “…twenty yards…of green tarlatane (a fashionable fabric) would contain about 900 grains of white arsenic. Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature.” Some European countries banned the shade produced by arsenic, notably France, known for being a fashion leader. Britain did not, at least not right away.

The wearer of materials made with arsenic was not only endangering themselves, as well as whomever handled the materials for cleaning, pressing, or tailoring. Manufacturers were exposed to the poison in copious amounts as part of their job. During the Victorian Age the use of artificial flowers for display and for women’s hats and other decorative devices grew, and many were dusted with arsenic powder during the manufacturing process, leading the workers to inhale arsenic dust until it often reached fatal levels.

Public outcry from workers forced exposure of arsenic dangers, and supporting medical and social reformers were not enough to turn public opinion in Britain away from the use of arsenic based dyes and products. Not until synthetic dyes which replicated the color produced by arsenic were introduced did its use begin to wane.

According to the above referenced edition of the British Medical Journal, a hair wreath of fifty green leaves made with arsenic carried an amount of the poison sufficient to poison the lady who wore it “…and nineteen friends.” Maybe the sheer prevalence of the poison created the complacency. “We have of late years,” wrote the British Medical Journal, “taken to the surrounding ourselves with arsenic in our dwellings.” Perhaps the thought was one more dress won’t make any difference.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
The phrase “mad as a hatter’ came from the number of hatters made ill from mercury poisoning. Wikimedia


Until the early 1960s it was rare indeed to see a man outdoors not wearing some type of hat. Designs changed over the years but the well-dressed man wasn’t well dressed unless he wore a hat, well brushed and shiny, usually manufactured from animal hide and fur. Beaver was long popular for hats, and during the Victorian Age hats made of felt became popular for daily use, due to durability and affordability.

Felt was made by gluing together layers of fur from rabbits and hares. In order to make the glue adhere to the fur, and thus the fur to each layer, it was first treated by brushing it with a composition of mercury. Like arsenic, mercury had many uses by the Victorians, including medicine, but in the manufacturing of hats it was predominant. And deadly.

Mercury fumes inhaled by the hatmaker caused a variety of symptoms as it poisoned the body gradually. The first to appear was likely trembling, an uncontrollable shaking of the hands, followed by the remainder of the limbs. Paranoia soon emerged, followed by bursts of uncontrollable rage. Heart and breathing problems were another step in decline, along with frequent dental problems leading to the loss of teeth.

By the 1860s mercury was known as was the source of these problems, but its use continued unabated. For one thing,as far as society was concerned, the problem only affected the worker, who was expendable, but not the fashionable hat wearer, who presumably was not.

Using mercury in hats continued until the Second World War, when it was suspended largely because mercury was needed for other uses, mostly in explosives. After the war its use resumed; not until the wearing of hats went out of fashion did its widespread use in their manufacture cease. But even if the Victorian’s banned the use of mercury in hatmaking they would have exposed themselves to the metal in other ways.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
Single Gloucester cheese is less red in tint than Double Gloucester and neither rely on Red Lead for its color any more. Daily Mail


In the Victorian Age cheeses of all kinds were popular. Cheese was a means of preserving milk from cows and goats in the days where refrigeration was not readily available. Cheesemakers developed new and different flavors to appeal to the palate of consumers. One popular cheese in England and Scotland, and later the United States, was Gloucester and its more pungent relative, Double Gloucester.

Both varieties were and are made with cow’s milk and are aged to a semi-hardness. It was judged then in part by its aroma and in part by its distinct reddish hue, with more redness believed to indicate more flavor. During the Victorian Age and even before, some manufacturers began enhancing the redness of the cheese through the use of red lead in the manufacturing process.

The dangers of ingesting lead – at least the short term dangers – were known to medical professionals of the day. They included violent indigestion with severe pain, nervous tension and anxiety, aversion to food, and others.

Red lead (and white lead) were both in common use during the Victorian Age, one application was in the manufacture of paint, which lead made both more durable and capable of crisper colors. In the coloration of Gloucester cheese a product called annatto was used, ground from the seeds of the achiote tree. Red lead was readily available and considerably cheaper, inducing some less scrupulous purveyors of annatto to substitute lead for seeds as a cost saver.

The discovery of adulterated cheese was one of the earliest examples of food offered to consumers containing unsuspected contaminants which were potentially lethal at worst, and harmful to the health at best. In the absence of any inspecting authority in most nations all a consumer could do to protect himself or herself was to obtain the services of a trusted purveyor and trust to luck.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
An advertising card for a company which sold patent medicines, depicts a woman with eyes exhibiting the Victorian ideal; bright whites and dilated pupils, Wikimedia

Cosmetics again

Late in her reign, after many years of mourning over the death her husband Prince Albert, Queen Victoria declared the excessive use of make-up to be vulgar. The ladies of the realm were not amused. English women, having achieved the requisite pale to the point of transparency complexion, needed to obtain the rosy cheeks and other details which indicated to the observer a woman of refinement and distinction.

After cleaning the eyes with a drop or two of citrus, which brightened the white of the eye, a drop of belladonna would follow. The belladonna would dilate the pupil, which while detrimental to vision contrasted the color of the eye with the white, creating a lustrous effect. Belladonna is, of course, a deadly poison which can lead to tachycardia, hallucinations, convulsions, delirium, and several other symptoms.

Eye paint (eyeliner) could be made of many natural compounds, some toxic, some not. Toxic materials included lead tetroxide, mercuric sulfide, and antimony. Symptoms of antimony poisoning include nausea and vomiting, in its severe stages it closely resembles arsenic poisoning.

After completing the application of what was then known as face paint, many women had their hair put up in elaborate styles held in place by combs made of tortoise shell if they could afford them, or celluloid if they were more budget minded. Celluloid combs were not poisonous but they did have an annoying tendency to explode when they became too hot, igniting the hair. This was a hazard not only in summer months, but in crowded rooms lit with multiple candles or lamps, warmed by multiple stoves.

In the Victorian Age advice columns containing tips on what makeup to wear and how to wear it became common in magazines. These columns, besides advising on the proper manner to wear makeup, also provided counsel to those who were harmed by it, comparing the pros and cons. Harper’s Bazaar published a column so popular that it was reprinted as an anthology. The column presented women who believed themselves “homely” with advice which if followed would make them “charming” when the right “inventions” (such as those above) were followed.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
Hovis Bread promised one’s daily bread and cured indigestion too. Wikimedia


Bread is one of the most basic foods around the world, known as the staff of life. During the Victorian Age, the way bread was made began to change, particularly in urban households. Bread began to be made less in the home and more at a neighborhood bakery. It became a for-profit item, and the earliest vestiges of commercial bakeries began to emerge.

When they did, some manufacturers began to explore ways to increase their profits. Since bread was sold based on the weight of the loaf, with a one pound loaf most common, one way to reduce the cost of manufacture was to reduce the amount of flour, substituting another, hopefully innocuous ingredient, which would maintain the weight without altering the flavor of the loaf.

Many different materials were used in place of some of the flour, including ground bone meal, ground dried beans, Plaster of Paris, and plain chalk. Most popular was alum, which offered the baker several advantages. It was freely available, it was cheap, it was tasteless, and it whitened the bread. It also added more weight since it was heavier by volume than flour.

It also contributed to several health problems, not the least of which was malnutrition. Alum added no nutritional value to the loaves it adulterated and in fact since it led to a reduction in flour – the primary nutritional source in bread – it contributed to malnutrition.

It also caused digestive and gastrointestinal problems which ranged from simple indigestion in healthy adults to severe constipation. In children it could induce chronic diarrhea, which could often in itself lead to dehydration and death. As in the case of Gloucester Cheese, there was no government oversight to ensure the ingredients in bread were what the consumer believed them to be, nor any requirement to inform the consumer that they were not.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
Housewives inadvertently poisoned themselves and their families trying to extend the shelf life of fresh milk. BBC


The early Victorians consumed milk in its raw state, meaning it was not pasteurized, a process introduced by Louis Pasteur to help lengthen the shelf life of beer. Refrigeration was iffy, there was no way to ensure milk was kept cool from dairy to home, and shelf life was very short. Another issue, largely unknown to the Victorians, was that milk is an excellent choice as a microbial growth medium.

Victorians did know when the milk they had at home was beginning to slide past its best use date. It smelled and tasted sour. A leading home management authority of the day, Isabella Beeton, advised the addition of boric acid to slightly off milk, to both remove the sour taste and smell. Her readers were assured that the addition of small amounts of boric acid would do no harm and encourage consumption of the milk. Mrs. Beeton was twice wrong.

Boric acid when consumed even in small amounts caused (and causes) digestive issues including diarrhea, vomiting, severe cramps, and abdominal pain. While none of those is usually regarded as a fatal symptom, except in children who were the leading consumers of milk, it was that the boric acid concealed the fact that the milk was bad that made it poisonous.

Raw milk can contain tuberculosis, diphtheria, brucellosis and scarlet fever. It also contains or can contain staphylococcus, listeria, e-coli, salmonella, and many other bacteria. As mentioned, milk is an excellent medium for the growing of microbes, and masking the fact that unpasteurized milk was no longer fit for consumption was deadly – particularly for children.

Controlled use of alum is allowed today in some prepared foods, such as commercially prepared pickles. Chalk is used in many grocery store white breads for the reason that it helps make the bread a brighter white. It’s found in the ingredients as magnesium carbonate or calcium carbonate. But it won’t be found at levels which lead to malnutrition.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
A late-Victorian Era dental office would have appeared similar to this display. University of Liverpool

The Dentist

One thing common to nearly all photographs taken of subjects during the Victorian Age is the face glaring out from the black and white print is invariably unsmiling. Simply from the photographs one would have to adjudge the Victorians to have been an unhappy bunch, especially when comparing the photographs with paintings or drawings, where they seem much more prone to gaiety.

It was during the Victorian Age that dentistry ceased to be considered a trade and assumed the role of a profession. Advances during the era were many, in the development and use of tools such as high speed drills, for instance. It was what went in the hole after the drilling was complete which made Victorian visits to the dentist potentially toxic.

Amalgamated fillings predated the Victorian Age, but not by much. During the era their use expanded dramatically. Amalgamated fillings contained more than 50% mercury. Today mercury is known to be the most poisonous naturally occurring material there is which is not classified as radioactive. Although still in use today under strict government regulation, such safeguards were not present in the Victorian’s day, and mercury laden fillings were poisonous to their recipients.

The fillings released mercury vapor, which was and is toxic, and up to 80% of those vapors were absorbed by the body. Mercury is a heavy metal which is not expelled by the body but builds up over time until symptoms of mercury poisoning appear. Today, removed amalgamated fillings or pieces thereof must be disposed of using hazardous material procedures, in part because of the mercury they contain.

Of course not going to the dentist was equally dangerous. The poor dental hygiene of the day, lack of fluoride, and dietary factors led to bad teeth being commonplace, and many simply let them rot where they were until they broke or fell out. This often led to septicemia – blood poisoning – which is life threatening today and in the Victorian Age invariably fatal.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
Although there is no indication what it contains Brown’s Iron Bitters will cure most anything, it appears. Wikimedia

The Drug Store

The Victorian Age was an unhealthy age by almost any measure. There were some who touted the benefits of healthful exercise but they were largely ignored by a populace which did not have the modern day conveniences which deprive someone from using various muscles as a routine part of the day. Diseases were measured by epidemics, and epidemics were fairly routine. Cholera and typhus, malaria, influenza, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and others rampaged with distressing regularity. And there was the less dangerous annoyances of life such as colds, indigestion, insomnia, and so forth.

Patent medicines have been around since the 17th century but they reached their peak in the Victorian Age and the years immediately following it (although some would say they are at their peak now). Some were specific for certain symptoms while others promised that they were a panacea for all ills known to man. They could be used to invigorate the fatigued or calm the hyperactive and some could do both. They were among the first products to be heavily advertised in magazines, playbills, posters, and newspapers.

Some were harmless but most were not. Codeine, cocaine, morphine, and other narcotics were included in many, usually in a base of alcohol. Arsenic, strychnine, belladonna, and other poisons gave them additional kick. The contents of medicine and the use of narcotics were almost wholly unregulated, and the purveyors of patent medicines were not required to justify their extravagant claims for the efficacy of their product.

It was in the Victorian Age that the use of various nostrums, electrical stimulation, or a combination of both began to be huckstered as a means of stimulating hair growth, creating an industry which thrives to this day, with about the same results. One manufacturer, Thomas Holloway of London, marketed an ointment which was promised to cure “…bad breasts (?), old wounds, sores, and ulcers.”

Many patent medicines, because of their content, were addictive and added to the cumulative levels of arsenic and mercury in the bodies of Victorians. Thus they did nothing to alleviate the ills they promised to cure, other than intoxicate the consumer past the point of caring, and added to their collective ills. It is easy to envision a Victorian suffering from the side effects of cosmetics seeking comfort from an elixir which increased the level of intoxication ever closer to a lethal level.

10 Ways the Victorians Unwittingly Poisoned Themselves Every Single Day
Victorian Meat Market. Most of the meat sold here went to brokers, butchers, and restarauteurs. The Victorian Web


During the 19th century and throughout the Victorian era meat, in all of its forms, underwent no inspections, either before or after butchering. Meatpackers, always with an eye on the public welfare, were not above taking meat already known to be bad for whatever reason, and mask the rot by either pickling or smoking it. In 1862 the Privy Council in England, formal advisors to Her Majesty, informed their sovereign and the populace that more than one fifth of the meat sold in England came from animals which had been diseased in life. Often veal was veal because it had been too sick to have become a cow.

It was not only the quality of the meat consumed, the quantity was injurious to the health too, whether too much or too little. When New York’s famed Delmonico’s feted Charles Dickens with a dinner in 1870, at a cost of $15 a seating, it offered a menu which began with a light soup, followed by an hors d’oeuvres, then a fish course, then a light dish to cleanse the palate before the serious eating began. Next the entrée, with side dishes (six different entrees were offered), another palate cleanser, salads, followed by fruit dishes, after which a first dessert style dish, another dish of fresh fruits and compotes, and then a dessert. It was followed with cheese and port.

Those who couldn’t afford Delmonico’s instead often dined on beef alone, or a fowl, or fish caught in the already badly polluted rivers, and ingested who knows what along with their protein. Many of the poor chose to limit their food budget and spend their disposable income on alcohol instead. They were no doubt unaware of the common practice of fortifying watered down rum and beer with strychnine.

Even ice cream was found to be adulterated by the Privy Council in London, with the number of contaminants and what they comprised being, well, disgusting. In samples taken around London, ice cream was found to contain hairs from rats, cats, mice, and dogs. Bed bugs, lice, fleas, and straw were found. So was various bacteria.

Even fresh fruit in many cities was contaminated, in part because often the barges used to transport the fruit from ships to the market returned laden with garbage to dump in the water, which also as often as not provided part of the city’s drinking water. The manner and amount of poisons which were ingested by our Victorian ancestors is so astonishing that it is a wonder that we are here to read about it.