In 1775 an early chemist Carl Scheele had discovered that he could make a beautiful bright yellowish-green pigment that was excellent for making paints, dyeing cloth and paper, and oh yah as a pesticide. See Scheele’s Green as it was called was a compound of copper and the highly toxic arsenic. Even at that time people knew that arsenic was not the best thing in the world to eat but it was assumed as long as you didn’t eat any of it probably was fine so what could go wrong? The problem was that not everyone was aware of how the dye was made and that arsenic has many more ways of killing someone. The result was the poisoning deaths of many people and the lasting association of green with things that are toxic.
In the 18th and early 19th century many dyes and pigments had to be made from natural sources like plants and minerals and that meant that certain colors could be extremely expensive. In fact purple was so expensive it was a sign of status since the times of Rome all the way to 1850 when the pigment mauvine was invented. So chemists were constantly on the lookout for ways to make new chemical based colors and when these new colors were made they were instantly popular. So enter Scheele an apothecary running a lab near Stockholm. He discovered that by mixing washing soda with arsenic trioxide and then adding the bright blue copper sulfate which was used in print making he could make a very bright green durable color that would easily bond to whatever it was put on.
So naturally people put it on everything. House paint, clothing, even toys were all turned arsenic green and probably most infamously wall paper. Actually arsenic isn’t all the dangerous so long as it stays very dry but when it’s exposed to moisture it gives of deadly arsenic vapors. Homes of the time unluckily had a bad habit of being kind of damp so people would slowly be poisoned by the paint or wall paper of their homes leading to seemingly spontaneous cases of arsenic poisoning, unfortunately many of these victims were children. Its thought that Neapolitan himself may have been poisoned this way since his prison/house on St Helena was covered in the color. It also somehow found as its way dangerously into food dye leading at least two accounts of party guests or their family’s being killed accidentally.
In 1814 two Germans named Russ and Sattler wanted to make Scheele’s green better so they added verdigris the blueish sort of rust that forms on oxidized copper. Their new color became known as emerald green and by nick name Paris green. It became even more popular than Scheele’s green though just as deadly. It was especially popular with English cloth manufactures who made in turn clothing in the color. This proved to be the down fall of Paris green since people who liked wearing the color were often sickly and would suffer early deaths. By 1822 it became publicly known that it contained arsenic but it was still used until around 1870 when better green pigments came along but it wasn’t officially banned until the 1960’s. It is still possible to find hold homes painted in Paris green today costing the unsuspecting home owner thousands to remove it. Oh and If you wondering how a color made in Germany came by the name Paris green it was because the city of Paris dumped tons of the stuff into the city sewers in a plan to stop the infestation of rats.
Since cavemen painted on walls humans have always been obsessed with color. /After all we even made paint out of the remains of the dead . It’s that obsession that has led to brilliant works of art by the masters but in the case of Paris green it also lead to more than a few who lost their lives in the name of fashion.