7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

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. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

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.)

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 acted 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

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

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 Wetterhahn, 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

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

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.”

This article was republished in 2019.

10 of the Most Popular Portable Bluetooth Speakers on Amazon

Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon
Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon

As convenient as smartphones and tablets are, they don’t necessarily offer the best sound quality. But a well-built portable speaker can fill that need. And whether you’re looking for a speaker to use in the shower or a device to take on a long camping trip, these bestselling models from Amazon have you covered.

1. OontZ Angle 3 Bluetooth Portable Speaker; $26-$30 (4.4 stars)

Oontz portable bluetooth speaker
Cambridge Soundworks/Amazon

Of the 57,000-plus reviews that users have left for this speaker on Amazon, 72 percent of them are five stars. So it should come as no surprise that this is currently the best-selling portable Bluetooth speaker on the site. It comes in eight different colors and can play for up to 14 hours straight after a full charge. Plus, it’s splash proof, making it a perfect speaker for the shower, beach, or pool.

Buy it: Amazon

2. JBL Charge 3 Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $110 (4.6 stars)

JBL portable bluetooth speaker
JBL/Amazon

This nifty speaker can connect with up to three devices at one time, so you and your friends can take turns sharing your favorite music. Its built-in battery can play music for up to 20 hours, and it can even charge smartphones and tablets via USB.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Anker Soundcore Bluetooth Speaker; $25-$28 (4.6 stars)

Anker portable bluetooth speaker
Anker/Amazon

This speaker boasts 24-hour battery life and a strong Bluetooth connection within a 66-foot radius. It also comes with a built-in microphone so you can easily take calls over speakerphone.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker; $129 (4.4 stars)

Bose portable bluetooth speaker
Bose/Amazon

Bose is well-known for building user-friendly products that offer excellent sound quality. This portable speaker lets you connect to the Bose app, which makes it easier to switch between devices and personalize your settings. It’s also water-resistant, making it durable enough to handle a day at the pool or beach.

Buy it: Amazon

5. DOSS Soundbox Touch Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $28-$33 (4.4 stars)

DOSS portable bluetooth speaker
DOSS/Amazon

This portable speaker features an elegant system of touch controls that lets you easily switch between three methods of playing audio—Bluetooth, Micro SD, or auxiliary input. It can play for up to 20 hours after a full charge.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Altec Lansing Mini Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $15-$20 (4.3 stars)

Altec Lansing portable bluetooth speaker
Altec Lansing/Amazon

This lightweight speaker is built for the outdoors. With its certified IP67 rating—meaning that it’s fully waterproof, shockproof, and dust proof—it’s durable enough to withstand harsh environments. Plus, it comes with a carabiner that can attach to a backpack or belt loop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Tribit XSound Go Bluetooth Speaker; $33-$38 (4.6 stars)

Tribit portable bluetooth speaker
Tribit/Amazon

Tribit’s portable Bluetooth speaker weighs less than a pound and is fully waterproof and resistant to scratches and drops. It also comes with a tear-resistant strap for easy transportation, and the rechargeable battery can handle up to 24 hours of continuous use after a full charge. In 2020, it was Wirecutter's pick as the best budget portable Bluetooth speaker on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

8. VicTsing SoundHot C6 Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $18 (4.3 stars)

VicTsing portable bluetooth speaker
VicTsing/Amazon

The SoundHot portable Bluetooth speaker is designed for convenience wherever you go. It comes with a detachable suction cup and a carabiner so you can keep it secure while you’re showering, kayaking, or hiking, to name just a few.

Buy it: Amazon

9. AOMAIS Sport II Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $30 (4.4 stars)

AOMAIS portable bluetooth speaker
AOMAIS/Amazon

This portable speaker is certified to handle deep waters and harsh weather, making it perfect for your next big adventure. It can play for up to 15 hours on a full charge and offers a stable Bluetooth connection within a 100-foot radius.

Buy it: Amazon

10. XLEADER SoundAngel Touch Bluetooth Speaker; $19-$23 (4.4 stars)

XLeader portable bluetooth speaker
XLEADER/Amazon

This stylish device is available in black, silver, gold, and rose gold. Plus, it’s equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, a more powerful technology that can pair with devices up to 800 feet away. The SoundAngel speaker itself isn’t water-resistant, but it comes with a waterproof case for protection in less-than-ideal conditions.

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Facts About Mount Rushmore

It took three years just to carve Washington's likeness.
It took three years just to carve Washington's likeness.
TheDigitalArist, Pixabay // Public Domain

Today, the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt gaze over South Dakota’s Black Hills, their images sculpted on the granite slopes of Mount Rushmore. An engineering marvel, this unlikely landmark now draws millions of visitors every year.

But the place casts a dark shadow. Built by a Klu Klux Klan sympathizer on land seized from the Sioux during a gold rush, Mount Rushmore is steeped in controversy. Here are 10 little-known facts about its creation and history.

1. The Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation call this mountain Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, or “Six Grandfathers.”

The Six Grandfathers before construction began on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
1905 photo of the Six Grandfathers, before construction began on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When New York attorney Charles E. Rushmore first laid eyes on the landform in 1884, the presidential sculpting effort was decades away. Reportedly, the visiting lawyer asked his guides if the mountain had a name. Unaware of its importance to the Sioux, they said no—and then one of them added, “We will name it now, and name it Rushmore Peak.” Over time, this evolved into “Mount Rushmore.”

2. Mount Rushmore’s head sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, previously worked on a huge Confederate monument.

Georgia’s Stone Mountain bears a 158-by-76-foot carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and their horses. Borglum came up with the basic concept after the Daughters of the Confederacy asked him to sculpt Lee’s head into the rockface. But on February 25, 1925, 10 years into the project, Borglum was fired after disputes with the organization. Stone Mountain was finished without his involvement; then-Vice President Spiro Agnew attended its dedication ceremony in 1970.

3. The idea for Mount Rushmore began with South Dakota's Historian. 

Borglum's model of Mt. Rushmore
Borglum's model of Mount Rushmore.

Intrigued by Stone Mountain, Jonah LeRoy “Doane” Robinson, South Dakota’s official State Historian, contacted Borglum in 1924. The Black Hills were already a tourist destination, but Robinson wanted an audacious new draw. Turning some local geologic features into a lineup of statues depicting western legends like Buffalo Bill Cody, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark sounded like a good business move to Robinson. But Borglum had other ideas. In addition to changing the monument's proposed location—he opted for Mount Rushmore instead of the nearby granite spires Robinson had chosen—he also changed the people depicted. Feeling the place should be a “national monument commemorating America’s founders and builders,” the sculptor went with a presidential theme.

4. Gutzon Borglun liked Mount Rushmore because of its physical attributes.

South Dakota is full of mountains, so why was the monument built on this one? For starters, Borglum realized it was sturdy enough to withstand the rigorous sculpting process. He also liked the fact that Mount Rushmore’s southeastern flank (where the faces now stand) gets good sun exposure. The mountain's fine-grained Harvey Peak granite also influenced Borglun's choice: Though the material was more difficult to carve, it would erode slower than the granite found on other nearby peaks.

5. Construction on Mount Rushmore began in 1927.

It officially ended on October 31, 1941. Borglum unexpectedly died that March, leaving his son, Lincoln, to oversee the last few months of production.

6. Eleanor Roosevelt wanted Susan B. Anthony on Mount Rushmore.

Washington’s head was the first part of the monument to be dedicated, followed by Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s, and finally Roosevelt’s. Meanwhile, a different Roosevelt wanted Susan B. Anthony to join their ranks. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Borglum in 1936, asking him to include the prominent suffragist’s likeness. A bill reiterating this plea was introduced to Congress the following year, but it didn’t get far due to funding restrictions.

7. The construction crew used a technique called “honeycombing” to carve Mount Rushmore.

Construction on Mount Rushmore.
In addition to sculpting these four heads, the workers also carved out a secret room behind the monument.
National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dynamite cleared away 90 percent of the unwanted rock, but some tasks were ill-suited for explosives. Once they came within 3 to 6 inches of the desired depth, Borglum’s workers would drill shallow holes in tightly packed rows. Known as “honeycombing,” this trick allowed them to pull off chunks of granite with their bare hands.

8. Mount Rushmore once had its own baseball team.

While at Rushmore, Borglum and his son organized a baseball team made up entirely of their day-laborers. In 1939, the “Rushmore Drillers” had a great summer, qualifying for the semifinals in South Dakota’s Amateur Baseball Tournament.

9. Mount Rushmore is just two counties away from the U.S.’s geographic center.

Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, shifting the geographic center of the U.S. from Smith County, Kansas, to Butte County, South Dakota. The exact spot is located on private land, but roughly 20 miles to the south—in the nearby city of Belle Fourche, South Dakota—there’s a compass-shaped monument honoring America’s midpoint. By car, that attraction’s only 79.4 miles from Mount Rushmore, the most iconic spot in Pennington County.

10. The last surviving Mount Rushmore carver died in 2019.

A prominent member of those Rushmore Drillers, Donald “Nick” Clifford was a right-fielder and the youngest carver ever to work on the monument. He was hired in 1938 at the tender age of 17. Clifford outlived all of his Mount Rushmore co-workers and died in 2019 at 98 years old.

11. Native Americans activists occupied Mount Rushmore in 1970.

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie set aside South Dakota’s Black Hills, Mount Rushmore included, for the exclusive use of indigenous people. Yet the United States hastily redrew the agreed-upon boundaries when General George A. Custer found gold in the region six years later.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. government had acted illegally. As per the ruling, a compensation trust now worth over $1 billion was set aside for the Sioux. That money has never been collected.

Ten years before that Supreme Court decision, a group of 23 Native American activists climbed Mount Rushmore on August 29, 1970. Demanding that the land be restored to the Sioux, the group defied federal regulations and set up camp atop the mountain. Protestors remained at the site until that November, when bad weather finally drove them out. According to Lehman Brightman, the former President of the United Native Americans organization and one of the event’s architects, it was “the first Sioux Indian uprising” since Custer’s lifetime.