‘Even ice cream was found to be contaminated. In samples taken around London, they found it to contain hairs from rats, cats, mice, and dogs. Bed bugs, lice, fleas, and straw.’
In Victorian times, poison was a part of everyday life. Readily available in a staggering array of forms, they used arsenic in many products, primarily in the inks and dyes of beautifully printed wallpapers and clothing. Odourless and colourless, it also found its way into food as colouring, and was used in beauty products. As a poison, its effects were unmistakable, unconsciousness, convulsions, nausea, cardiac arrest and death, often in a matter of seconds.
Baby bottles were nothing new in Victorian times. What was new was a special glass bottle fitted with rubber tubing and a teat. The idea was the infant sucked on the rubber tube. These feeding bottles became the go-to accessory for the Victorian mother, but with fatal consequences.
There was a design flaw: they set the rubber tubing into the glass and almost impossible to clean. Inside the bottle, warm milk made it the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Mrs. Beeton, the household guru, didn’t help. Writing in 1861, she stated it wasn’t necessary to wash the bottles for two to three weeks.
The result was babies drinking a soup of bacteria, often with fatal consequences. The bottles soon gained another name, ‘murder bottles.’ This should have stopped their use. But it didn’t. Woefully, many mothers were taken in by advertising and continued using them.
Laudanum is a tincture of opium and the Victorian equivalent of aspirin. It was a cure-all that settled nerves, eased pain, and ensured restful sleep. The only problem was that laudanum is a syrup of opium. Available from pharmacies, it was also affordable at around 25 drops for one penny. They marketed laudanum to women to ease their ailments, such as menstrual cramps and hysteria.
As we know, opium is addictive. This meant people became dependent and took more and more. The alternative was to withdraw, with the symptoms of tremors, hallucinations, and sweats. With the doses of unregulated laudanum freely available, overdose was common.
When bread started to be produced cheaply in large quantities for the new city dwellers, Victorian manufacturers seized on the chance to increase their profits by switching ingredients for cheaper substitutes that would add weight and bulk. Bread was mixed with plaster of Paris, bean flour, chalk or alum. Alum is an aluminium-based compound, today used in detergent, but then it was used to make bread desirably whiter and heavier. Not only did such contamination lead to problems of malnutrition, but alum produced bowel problems and constipation or chronic diarrhoea, which was often fatal for children.
Cosmetics – 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. To a woman in the Victorian Age white skin was supreme, the whiter the better. They considered any woman with a tanned face and arms to be of a lower social order. To help keep the skin pale, chemists developed products and marketed them aggressively. Adverts promised arsenic wafers, to be eaten like cookies, would clear the face of freckles and tan. It described them as perfectly safe!
After cleaning their eyes with a drop of citrus, which brightened the white of the eye, a drop of belladonna would follow. The belladonna would dilate the pupil, which while detrimental to vision contrasted the colour of the eye with the white, creating a lustrous effect. Belladonna is, of course, a deadly poison which can lead to tachycardia, hallucinations, convulsions, delirium, and several other symptoms.
Hats – Victorian age hats made of felt became popular for daily use, due to durability and affordability. Felt was made by gluing together layers of fur from rabbits and hares. In order to make the glue adhere to the fur, it was first treated by brushing it with a composition of mercury. Like arsenic, mercury had many uses by the Victorians, including medicine, but in the manufacturing of hats it was deadly.
Mercury vapours inhaled by the hat maker caused many symptoms as it gradually poisoned the body. The first to appear was usually trembling, an uncontrollable shaking of the hands, followed by the rest of the limbs. Paranoia soon emerged, followed by bursts of overwhelming rage. Heart and breathing problems followed, along with dental problems leading to the loss of teeth. By the 1860s mercury was known as was the source of these problems, but its use continued unabated.
In the Victorian age, cheeses of all kinds were popular. Cheese was a means of preserving milk from cows and goats in the days where refrigeration was not readily available. Cheese makers developed new flavours to appeal to the palate of consumers. One popular cheese was Gloucester and its more pungent relative, Double Gloucester.
Both varieties were and are made with cow’s milk and are aged to a semi-hardness. It was judged then in part by its aroma and in part by its distinct reddish hue, with more redness believed to show more flavour. During the Victorian Age and even before, some manufacturers began enhancing the redness of the cheese through the use of red lead in the manufacturing process.
The dangers of ingesting lead included violent indigestion with severe pain, nervous tension and anxiety and dislike to food. Red lead was in common use during the Victorian Age, one application was in the colouration of Gloucester cheese. They used a product called annatto, ground from the seeds of the achiote tree. Red lead was a lot cheaper, inducing some less scrupulous purveyors of annatto to substitute lead for seeds as a cost saver.
The Dentist – It was during the Victorian Age dentistry ceased to be considered a trade and became a profession. Advances during the era were many in the development and use of tools such as high-speed drills, for instance. It was what went in the hole after they completed the drilling.
Amalgamated fillings contained over 50% mercury. The fillings released mercury vapor, which was toxic, and up to 80% of the vapours were absorbed by the body. Not going to the dentist was equally dangerous. The poor dental hygiene of the day led to rotten teeth being commonplace, and many simply let them rot until they broke or fell out. This could lead to blood poisoning, which is life-threatening today and in the Victorian age invariably fatal.
Even ice cream was found to be contaminated. In samples taken around London, they found it to contain hairs from rats, cats, mice, and dogs. Bed bugs, lice, fleas, and straw. So were various bacteria.
Even fresh fruit was contaminated, in part because often the barges used to transport the fruit from ships to the market returned laden with garbage to dump in the water. The manner and amount of poisons which were ingested by our Victorian ancestors is so astonishing that it is a wonder that we are here to read about it.
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