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.

This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said: 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

The sixth and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

10 Fascinating Facts About W.E.B. Du Bois

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born just three years after the end of the Civil War and lived to see the incipient days of the Civil Rights movement. A thinker, scientist, and activist, Du Bois was an integral part of moving from one era to the next, not only by contributing a remarkable amount to the public discourse on racial inequity but also by putting his beliefs into practice as an organizer. His legacy is cemented by his social scientific efforts and the groups he founded to fight for social justice. Here are 10 facts about W.E.B. Du Bois.

1. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois attended the historically black college Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 before seeking a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. In 1892, he earned a John F. Slater Fund grant to study at the University of Berlin, but he wasn't tired of academia yet. He returned to the United States and, in 1895, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard with his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America: 1638-1871." During his undergrad years at Harvard, Du Bois was taught by the preeminent American philosopher and pioneer in psychology William James, who had an effect on Du Bois’s thinking and writing.

2. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted the first major case study of a black community in the United States.

Published in 1899, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” was the result of Du Bois’s survey of the city’s black population from 1896 to 1897. The study, which involved 5000 personal interviews, sought to identify the social problems unique to the black population. Not only was it the first case study of any black community, it was also an early effort of sociological research as a data-driven, statistically based social science. Du Bois’s conclusion was that the root of the multivariate problems lay in how black Americans were perceived, noting that the problems would ease if whites would see their black neighbors as peers instead of inferior: “Again, the white people of the city must remember that much of the sorrow and bitterness that surrounds the life of the American Negro comes from the unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions of men and women who do not intend to wound or annoy.” He also noted the historical causes of the so-called “Negro Problem,” including the legacy of systemic slavery and biased housing policies that left black members of society paying more rent for worse accommodations.

3. W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discussed his concept of “double consciousness,” an existential state experienced by persecuted groups in oppressive societies, marked by sensing your identity is divided. Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Du Bois's former professor, James, praised The Souls of Black Folk upon its release. He also reportedly sent a copy of Du Bois’s landmark work to his brother, the iconic American novelist Henry James.

4. W.E.B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement and opposed Booker T. Washington.

During the Reconstruction Era in the South, African Americans experienced a greater amount of social freedom and political participation, but nearing the turn of the century, southern states began restricting voting rights and segregating facilities. Eventually, in response, Booker T. Washington helped lay out the Atlanta Compromise—a principle that black Americans should avoid protesting for civic rights so long as they had access to criminal justice and jobs. In response to Washington’s tactic of capitulation, Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter led a group to found the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated for equal treatment, equal economic opportunities, equal educational opportunities, and “manhood suffrage.”

5. W.E.B. Du Bois's views gained larger support after the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.

Between September 22 and 24, 1906, in response to unsupported reports about black men raping four white women, more than 10,000 whites stormed through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find. The riots resulted in a number of deaths (the exact number could be as low as 10 or as high as 100) and, as an outright betrayal of justice, spat in the face of Washington’s brand of going along to get along.

After the riots, Du Bois wrote the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” and bought a shotgun in response. Du Bois and others felt that President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, should have sent in troops to prevent more violence. Coupled with an incident involving soldiers in Brownsville, Texas that same year, in 1908 Du Bois proclaimed that if Taft received the Republican nomination blacks should drop their support for the Republicans (a party they’d been faithful to since Abraham Lincoln), proclaiming an “avowed enemy [is] better than false friends.”

6. W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded the NAACP.

Four years after the Niagara meeting, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alongside figures such as journalist Mary White Ovington and lawyer Moorfield Storey. It was created as a biracial organization that would protest and lobby for equality (much like its forerunner, the Niagara Movement). Its earliest battles included fighting Jim Crow laws in the South (which segregated public facilities), opposing President Woodrow Wilson's segregation in federal workplaces, and lobbying for the right of African Americans to serve as military officers in WWI. Five years after its founding, it had 6000 members in 50 branches. From 1910 to 1934, Du Bois acted as the director of publicity and research, was on the board of directors, and edited its monthly magazine, The Crisis, which covered arts and politics.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois was a Civil Rights activist on a global scale.

Du Bois’s interest in equality extended beyond his own national borders. He helped organize multiple Pan-African Conferences after attending his first in 1900 in London. There, he penned the “Address to the Nations of the World,” which urged the United States and European nations to fight systemic racism and to end colonialism. He was also a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP to the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. As a writer and activist, he fought for freedom and equality for the whole of the African diaspora and for Africans themselves.

8. W.E.B. DU BOIS was a victim of McCarthyism.

The FBI started a file on Du Bois—an avowed Socialist—in 1942. In the 1950s—when McCarthyism was at its peak—Du Bois, who served as chairman of the anti-nuke Peace Information Center, and four others were charged with failing to register the organization with the government. If they had been convicted, they could have faced five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

The jury didn’t get to render a verdict, however, because the judge threw the case out after defense attorney Vito Marcantonio informed him that Albert Einstein would testify as a character witness for Du Bois. (The two were pen pals, and Einstein even wrote an essay for The Crisis.)

9. W.E.B. Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana but never renounced his United States Citizenship.

The fallout from the McCarthy-era government repression was profound. Several of Du Bois’s colleagues kept their distance, including the NAACP, which never rose publicly to his defense. Plus, despite the lack of a conviction, the government still revoked Du Bois’s passport for eight years. After getting it back, Du Bois traveled to Ghana in 1961 (at the age of 93) to work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. When the United States refused to renew his passport in 1963, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in symbolic protest. He’s sometimes erroneously included in lists of famous people who have renounced their American citizenship, but Du Bois never formally did so.

10. W.E.B. Du Bois died the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Du Bois was 95 when he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963. (Du Bois’s house in Accra, where he’s buried, was turned into the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, a small museum to his time in Ghana.) The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he shared his dream. It seems fate isn’t without a sense of poetry.

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