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