7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

Via Bloomsbury // Public Domain
Via Bloomsbury // Public Domain

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. A few of the worst offenders are below:

1. POISONOUS DYES 

Bloomsbury // Public Domain

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Bloomsbury // Public Domain

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they seemed like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says. 

2. PESTILENTIAL FABRICS

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. FLOWING SKIRTS  

Giant ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. FLAMMABLE FABRICS

Bloomsbury // Public Domain

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.” 

5. ARSENIC-RIDDEN TAXIDERMY

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. MERCURY 

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance. 

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterham, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. LEAD

Bloomsbury // Public Domain

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

Many of the items David discusses in her book are also on display in an exhibit at the Bata Show Museum, on view until June 2016.

10 Graveside Traditions at Famous Tombs

Kisses and graffiti left at Oscar Wilde's tomb in Paris
Kisses and graffiti left at Oscar Wilde's tomb in Paris
Chris barker, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Whether it's leaving playing cards or bullets, or drinking a cognac toast, there are a variety of traditional ways to pay tribute at famous tombs. We've rounded up some of the most fascinating.

1. Kisses at Oscar Wilde's Grave

Oscar Wilde is known for a variety of supposed deathbed utterances in keeping with his famous wit, the most well-known of which goes something like: "That wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes, or I do." (Wilde might have said it, but not on his deathbed.)

After the famously scandalous poet's death in 1900, his grave became almost as well-known as he was. Wilde was initially buried at the Bagneux Cemetery southwest of Paris, but was later exhumed and transferred to the famous Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise. In 1914, the grave was graced by a gigantic stylized angel carved by sculptor Jacob Epstein. Legend has it the sculpture originally came complete with a set of enormous genitals, which the cemetery's conservator ordered removed, then used as a paperweight in his office.

For at least a decade, visitors showed their admiration for Wilde by covering his grave in lipstick kisses, despite the threat of a fine for damaging a historic monument. In 2011, authorities at Père Lachaise installed a protective glass barrier that prevents such an up-close-and-personal tribute.

2. Metro Tickets at Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir's Grave

The grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, decorated with flowers and metro tickets
The grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, decorated with flowers and metro tickets
generalising, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The grave of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris is also sometimes covered in lipstick kisses, but some devotees leave a more unique offering: Metro tickets. The reasons are somewhat obscure. Some say it relates to a group of French Maoists that Sartre supported who gave away free Metro tickets during a fare hike in the 1960s, while others guess it’s connected to the Boulevard Voltaire riots, in which people died trying to get into a closed metro station. Some fans also leave Metro tickets on Serge Gainsbourg's grave, a tribute to his song "Les Poinçonneur des Lilas” ("The Ticket Puncher of Lilas").

3. Potatoes at Frederick the Great's Grave

Frederick the Great's grave, with potatoes
Frederick the Great's grave, with potatoes
threefishsleeping, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Frederick the Great asked for a simple burial on the terrace of his summer palace in Potsdam, next to the burial site of his beloved greyhounds, writing: “I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as such, without circumstance, without solemn pomp or parade.”

But his successor, Frederick William II, buried the former Prussian king in the Potsdam Garrison Church, which he considered a more appropriate resting place. Frederick the Great didn’t rest in peace, however—Hitler dug up his coffin and stashed it in a salt mine, for one thing. After several reburials, it wasn’t until 1991 that Frederick the Great got his wish thanks to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Today, well-wishers leave potatoes on his grave because he was known for encouraging the crop’s cultivation. The king issued 15 decrees concerning potatoes, trying to overcome cultural barriers to their use.

4. Bullets on Wyatt Earp's Grave

Colma, California, is home to far more dead people than living—it's where most of San Francisco’s deceased were moved when real estate there became too expensive for cemeteries. But Wyatt Earp is Colma's most famous resident, living or dead. His ashes rest at the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery (Earp wasn't Jewish, but his wife was). According to cemetery author and blogger Loren Rhoads, people often leave bullets on the grave (among other items) in memory of the way the West was won.

5. Playing Cards at Harry Houdini's Grave

Playing cards near a statue at Houdini's grave in Queens
Playing cards near a statue at Houdini's grave in Queens
Bess Lovejoy

The great magician’s grave in a forlorn corner of Machpelah Cemetery in Queens (part of the vast Brooklyn-Queens cemetery belt) is associated with several traditions. One of the earliest is the Broken Wand Ceremony, performed by members of the Society of American Magicians when a member dies. The first such ceremony was performed at Houdini's grave in 1926, the year of his death, and repeated on the anniversary of his death each year. (The large crowds attending the ceremony in later years forced a move from Houdini's death date, which is Halloween, to November.) Today, people leave an assortment of offerings on Houdini’s grave, frequently including playing cards—a reference to the magician’s classic tools of the trade.

6. Three XS at Marie Laveau's Tomb

The reputed tomb of Marie Laveau at St. Louis Cemetery, marked with Xs
The reputed tomb of Marie Laveau at St. Louis Cemetery, marked with Xs
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Famed "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau is buried in arguably the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. (Or she's said to be, anyway—some dispute surrounds her actual burial spot.) For years, visitors hoping to earn Marie's supernatural assistance would mark three large Xs on her mausoleum. Some also knocked three times on her crypt as a request for her help. However, a 2014 restoration of her tomb removed the Xs, and there's a substantial fine now in place for anyone who writes on her grave.

7. Toe Shoes at Sergei Diaghilev's Grave

Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the enormously influential dance troupe Ballets Russes, is buried in Italy on the island of San Michele (sometimes called Venice's "Island of the Dead"). According to Rhoads, there's a tradition of placing toe shoes on his grave.

8. "Indecent Rubbing" at Victor Noir's Grave

Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise in Paris
Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise in Paris
Chupacabra Viranesque, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poor Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise is home to one of the more lascivious cemetery traditions. Noir was a journalist who died in an 1870 duel, and later became a hero to Napoleon III's opponents. But his life story seemingly has little to do with the tradition invented by a tour guide in the 1970s, who said that rubbing the lump in the trousers on Noir's memorial would bring luck in love. Tourists were also told to kiss Noir's lips, and leave flowers in his hat. Decades of tourists have done the same, even though in 2004 the city briefly erected a fence around the statue and a sign prohibiting "indecent rubbing."

9. The Poe Toaster at Edgar Allan Poe's Grave

No round-up of famous graveside traditions would be complete without a mention of the Poe Toaster. Since at least the 1940s, a mysterious figure has stolen into the Westminster Presbyterian Church cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, gone to the site of his original grave, poured out a cognac toast, and left three red roses. The identity of the Poe Toaster has long been a secret, though one 92-year-old came forward in 2007 claiming to be the culprit. The last confirmed visit by the Toaster was in 2009, although the Maryland Historical Society has collaborated with Poe Baltimore and Westminster Burying Grounds to hold a competition to find the next one.

10. Candlelight Processions for Elvis Presley at Graceland

For truly devoted Elvis fans, the highlight of the year is “Death Week”—seven days of events leading up the anniversary of Elvis’s demise (Elvis Presley Enterprises prefers the term “Elvis Week”). After concerts, art exhibits, and charity runs, the week culminates in a candlelit procession that begins at dusk on August 15, the day before the anniversary of Elvis’s death. Tens of thousands of people carrying lighted tapers climb the hill to Graceland, where they each spend a few moments before Elvis’s grave near the reflecting pool. The proceedings go on all night, and it’s said that no other event brings together so many Americans in mourning year after year.

This list was first published in 2015.

This 3D-Printed Sushi is Customized For You Based on the Biological Sample You Send In

Open Meals
Open Meals

Many high-end restaurants require guests to make a reservation before they dine. At Sushi Singularity in Tokyo, diners will be asked to send fecal samples to achieve the ideal experience. As designboom reports, the new sushi restaurant from Open Meals creates custom sushi recipes to fit each customer's nutritional needs.

Open Meals is known for its experimental food projects, like the "sushi teleportation" concept, which has robotic arms serving up sushi in the form of 3D-printed cubes. This upcoming venture takes the idea of a futuristic sushi restaurant to new extremes.

Guests who plan on dining at Sushi Singularity will receive a health test kit in the mail, with vials for collecting biological materials like urine, saliva, and feces. After the kit is sent back to the sushi restaurant, the customer's genome and nutritional status will be analyzed and made into a "Health ID." Using that information, Sushi Singularity builds personalized sushi recipes, optimizing ingredients with the nutrients the guest needs most. The restaurant uses a machine to inject raw vitamins and minerals directly into the food.

To make things even more dystopian, all the sushi at Sushi Singularity will be produced by a 3D-printer with giant robotic arms. The menu items make the most of the technology; a cell-cultured tuna in a lattice structure, powdered uni hardened with a CO2 laser, and a highly detailed model of a Japanese castle made from flash-frozen squid are a few of the sushi concepts Open Meals has shared.

The company plans to launch Sushi Singularity in Tokyo some time in 2020. Theirs won't be the first sushi robots to roll out in Japan: The food delivery service Ride On Express debuted sushi delivery robots in the country in 2017.

[h/t designboom]

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