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Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home

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‘As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.’ ― William Morris on toxic wallpapers, 1885. Bitten by Witch Fever presents facsimile samples of 275 of the most sumptuous wallpaper designs ever created by designers and printers of the age, including Christopher Dresser and Morris & Co. For the first time in their history, every one of the samples shown has been laboratory tested and found to contain arsenic. Interleaved with the wallpaper sections, evocative commentary guides you through the incredible story of the manufacture, uses and effects of arsenic, and presents the heated public debate surrounding the use of deadly pigments in the sublime wallpapers of a newly industrialized world.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 2016

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About the author

Lucinda Hawksley

44 books152 followers
Lucinda Hawksley is a British biographer, author and lecturer. She is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine. Hawksley is an award-winning travel writer.
She also writes under the name Lucinda Dickens Hawksley.

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5 stars
133 (40%)
4 stars
147 (44%)
3 stars
43 (12%)
2 stars
8 (2%)
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0 (0%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews
Profile Image for Roberta .
1,158 reviews22 followers
October 12, 2017
First impression: This book is quite simply gorgeous. It's like the most beautiful wallpaper sample book at the home decorating store. I could look at Victorian wallpaper all day.

Second thought: The text pages are just horrible to read. OMG! Who chose this ridicuous font? And the poor contrast? No, I am not interested in a discussion of the potential benefits of cognitive disfluency, I just want to read the book. I'm taking away one star for the designer's decision that being artsy-fartsy is that much more important than functionality. And printing the text on undersized pages? What is that about? Could it possibly be a homage to those aforementioned wallpaper sample books? You know, those short multiple colorway samples between the large sample pages? Pathetic joke, if true.
Profile Image for Wealhtheow.
2,406 reviews535 followers
November 21, 2017
Miners were commonly exposed to arsenic, and as technological innovations continued, an ever increasing proportion of American and European society became exposed as well. From Scheele green's creation in 1775 through the early 1900s, arsenic was found in practically anything meant to have medicinal or colored properties, from candy to clothes to wallpaper. Astoundingly, Britain never actually outlawed the manufacture or sale of wallpaper containing arsenic, even after decades of clear evidence of the negative health consequences associated with it.

This book is well organized and clearly written. There are hundreds of arsenical wallpapers presented in between text chapters, and they are so beautiful that one does understand why the public would still seek out wallpaper even when their newspapers were filled with reports of its danger. I love how much attention this book paid to the workforce creating and dealing with arsenical home goods; many books about household poisons focus entirely on accidental deaths of children who ate contaminated sweets, murderers, or vain socialites killed by their cosmetics. I didn't like the chosen font, which is wispy and joins s with t with a loop. The wallpapers are organized by color and to a certain extent pattern, but it would've been interesting to see changes in color and design over time or between workshops or nations, too.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
145 reviews7 followers
December 2, 2017
A really superb book about the historical uses of arsenic, and specifically it's use in wallpapers. The text portion of the book is relatively short, spliced with beautiful full-page images of various wallpapers. It's a visually stunning book and the text is accessible to most readers.
Profile Image for Jane.
2,681 reviews49 followers
May 13, 2018
I bet you didn't know that William Morris, that arbiter of the Arts and Crafts Movement, was a poisoner, and a poisoner on a national scale. Wow. Not only did he use arsenic in his wallpaper pigments, he owned a large block of shares in a Devon arsenic mine, and he defended the use of this
terrible poison. He even claimed that doctors who inveighed against its use "had been bitten by the witch fever," thus providing Lucinda Hawksley with her marvelous title. Short essays on the history, use and misuse of arsenic are interleaved with 275 perfectly gorgeous examples of 19th century wallpapers, all of which tested positive for what the Victorians jokingly called "inheritance powder."
A beautiful and compelling book.
Profile Image for Adrianne.
88 reviews21 followers
September 3, 2019
Interesting read, but I wanted to comment more on the structure of the book rather than the content. This is one of the most beautifully designed books I've ever read. The full page facsimiles of wallpaper alternated with the signatures of text which were shorter in width so that flipping through the book you could easily jump from chapter to chapter for easy reference, which was an interesting take on traditional book construction. The choice of font was the only design decision I was not a fan of; the abundant ligatures [joined letters] detracted from the reading experience rather than facilitating it.
Profile Image for Jen.
19 reviews5 followers
November 7, 2016
The book is a gorgeous object, for a start. The gold ink and the poison bottle embossed into the cover are lovely details, and the prints of the various wallpapers are beautiful and fascinating. I learned a lot of interesting history on various subjects -- the arts and crafts movement, mining, forensics, working conditions, medicine. It makes me want to re-read Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers and Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett, which both concern themselves with detecting the cause of cases of arsenic poisoning.
Profile Image for Melissa.
557 reviews10 followers
September 20, 2018
A beautiful coffee table book, this contains both gorgeous plates of toxic 18th and 19th cent wallpapers as well as a brief, though fairly comprehensive, history of arsenical wallpapers.
Profile Image for Jessica Furtado.
334 reviews33 followers
October 28, 2019
Who would have thought that wallpaper would be so fascinating? I expected just to flip through and be inspired by the patterns, but I became engrossed in the strange history of Victorian wallpaper & arsenic poisoning. Well researched, and beautifully designed.
Profile Image for Willow.
95 reviews4 followers
October 18, 2021
Man, those Victorians were rolling in arsenic!
Profile Image for Ashley Olson.
427 reviews21 followers
August 19, 2022
Pleased to now have the knowledge of Victorian arsenic wallpaper in my arsenal. -1 star for being a bit dry and repetitive at points, but much more fun than watching paint dry 😉😉
Profile Image for Peter.
777 reviews113 followers
April 6, 2020
This is a great book, well researched infomative detailed etc. So why the two stars you may well ask. This book suffers from revisionist history and leftyism at certain points were it is not needed.

1) Why did William Morris own shares in a mine knowing the workers were suffering?

Why did William Morris sell wallpapers with arsnic knowing how bad they were?


For all his lefty, socialist and commie outlooks on life he wanted money.

If someone made an attempt to change anything the writing was clear and lucid. However when a woman joins in with the fight to ban arsnic in household goods she is political activist. FOR FUCK SAKE, give it a rest.

What could have been fautless and exciting book is marred by ignorant shit.

ANGRY, yes I am leave the politicising at the door.

Edit the damaged pages and let me read the book I purchased.

Five stars down to two. No more left or right bullshit please just let me read a good book!
Profile Image for Lisanne.
233 reviews7 followers
September 19, 2017
It's a gorgeous book. The combination of text and the many, many pictures is absolutely stunning.

It's a very nice book to read as well. It tells the history of both arsenic and wallpaper -because the two are closely related. It's always nice to see one of the most famous murderesses from your town to show up as well (Goeie Mie!).

I know Lucinda Hawksley is a good researcher and this is sort of a popular book, however: I would have liked a list of references and further reading. Therefore 4/5 stars.
Profile Image for Joanna.
1,659 reviews35 followers
June 16, 2019
Ein Hingucker in jedem Bücherregal!
Im 19. Jahrhundert waren bunte Tapeten ein Muss für jeden Bürger. Doch viele wurden mit Arsen hergestellt, was bei den Menschen Krankheiten und Todesfälle verursachte. Hawksley zeigt auf, wie das Bewusstsein dieser Gefahr in der Bevölkerung wuchs, aber auch die Faszination, die diese Tapeten ausübten.
Viele Bilder und Muster machen dieses Buch zu einem kleinen Kunstwerk.
Profile Image for laurel.
10 reviews
January 18, 2023
I'd have given this 5 stars if I could because it is utterly gorgeous (I kept looking at the wallpaper samples and going "ooh! ahh! I want that in my house! (preferrably an arsenic free version), but it does lack a little bit in terms of actually giving me in-depth information regarding the wallpapers. It's more of an overview of the subject, which is fine, because I did buy this primarily because it's pretty colours and patterns tickled my crow brain.
Profile Image for Nezka.
323 reviews
December 26, 2020
Beautifully designed book and fascinating history of the use of arsenic in wallpaper (amongst other things).
Profile Image for C.J. Bunce.
161 reviews3 followers
September 4, 2019
Originally published online at BORG.com.

Arsenic and Old Lace? Truth is often stranger, darker, and more insidious than fiction. Where the classic horror comedy dramaticized the historic use of arsenic as poison via elderberry wine, a routine use of the substance killed an incalculable number of people, probably at least in the tens of thousands, over the course of a little more than a century. Imagine everything around you right now that is printed in the color green is printed with an ink which, if you brush against it, inhale it, touch it, or ingest even a minute amount of it, would kill you violently? A recent scholarly account weaves together a tale of 18th-19th century science and psychology, beauty, style, and design, products liability and corporate greed, political cartoonists and iconic leaders of art history, and a scholarly account of an artform and staple of the arts and crafts movement in the most unlikely of collisions with day-to-day life. Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home is a book about wallpaper. And it could be the most surprising and intriguing book you read this year.

At one level Bitten by Witch Fever could be a useful tool–included in its pages are facsimiles, and thankfully only facsimiles, of 275 color wallpapers from the 19th century. It’s almost unprecedented and an ideal sourcebook for the period, for local or commercial set decorators, or for any artists and designers attempting to recreate in any medium the average household of the day or the most opulent business setting. Yet each of the papers represented was tested by current scientists to include arsenic. Predominantly tied to greens of a century of wallpaper style and taste, ultimately arsenic would be worked by designers into a broad spectrum of the color palette. But mankind has known the harm of arsenic going back to ancient times, right? It’s the complexity of the “Why?” that art and social historian (and Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter) Hawksley wrestles with in revisiting the use of arsenic in all its forms: as domestic poison, as health tonic, as pigment enhancer, and as murder weapon, and its rise in production with the rise of fashion of decorative wallpaper. But why “witch fever”? That reference in the title was from a comment by apologist William Morris–the arts and crafts movement innovator artiste–who also inherited from his father one of the few mines that produced arsenic. To brush off arsenic safety scaremongers, he had responded, “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.” In part, the realities were fuzzy: many people lived with wallpaper with no ill effects, and yet others sleeping in a closed room with wall-to-wall arsenic coated papers would become violently ill. Hawksley identifies cases of alleged crimes, court cases, alleged murders, and attempts to halt arsenic use. Throughout the 19th century political cartoonists drew cartoons mocking the public’s continuing use of the poison in daily life. Many of these cartoons are also included in the book.

The horrors were real: young siblings die after pulling wallpaper off their walls and licking off the strange flavor. From an ancient Greek physician using arsenic as an antiseptic to Nero using arsenic to murder Britannicus, to Napoleon rumored to have died in exile from arsenic poisoning, to the death of a Swedish king and the Borgias, the history of the substance crosses borders and social strata. A few countries were quick to ban its commercial use, while factories where it was used were slow to address safety issues for workers. In 1775 chemist Carl Scheele’s new green was so vibrant that the real fever was very much public fascination with new, beautiful colors. It was used on walls, but also in flypaper, flocked papers, rodent and insect poison, asthma and eczema cream, as a Victorian aphrodisiac, face creams and soaps, artificial decorative fruits and vegetables, dress fabrics, mail labels, playing cards, all sorts of product packaging, and (gulp) cake icing coloring, candy, and lickable postage stamps.

Bitten by Witch Fever is an engaging read. A product of the British National Archives, it delves into all sides of the use of arsenic, and serves as a historical document preserving a pervasive art form in its own right. The varieties of wallpaper presented are marvels in design. They will have you eye details in historical photographs of the era like never before. Working assisting a museum director of a 19th century house years ago, I would have loved to have had access to this volume as we worked to replicate wallpaper of the era for the home’s library and parlor. But this isn’t the first book to document these papers. While this book sources papers from the UK, in Michigan in 1874 chemist Robert Kedzie created a more frightening version of a contemporary book to warn of the dangers of wallpaper, including several examples of actual arsenic-imprinted wallpaper. Kedzie made 100 copies of Shadows from the Walls of Death, then distributed them to Michigan libraries (all but two copies are believed to have ultimately been destroyed, but not before reproducing the volume, available as a reprint here at Amazon). The replication of the hues and texture and very wallpaper-like page stock in Bitten by Witch Fever, evokes its own tactile experience in the horror sense–a level of unexpected, and disconcerting, creepiness as the reader contemplates the damage that could have been done to someone merely handling a single page were it not a mere reproduction.

Art history, legal history, art design chronicle, a history of workers’ rights, a history of regulation, an intriguing area of science and technology, featuring a unique use of political cartoons, a look at society, Victorian home décor, and culture, with 350 illustrations and 275 color wallpaper plates–Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home slices through science, art, politics, and society and produces a surprising segment of life from our past. Note: the hardcover, wallpaper-fabric covered book itself is gorgeous and uniquely designed, featuring half-page narratives throughout interspersed with the wallpaper plates and easily identifiable descriptions showing the relative extent of arsenic exposure in each piece, and a poison bottle inset with gold foil lettering on the cover.

Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley from Thames and Hudson USA is available now.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
40 reviews
December 5, 2017
Really fun book. Wallpaper samples are gorgeous, if a bit busy.

The history of arsenic is fascinating and fraught. Also, the world before corporate regulation was a scary place. There's no reason to stop using arsenic in wallpaper and dress goods (and candy!) when people are willing to buy and it's cheaper not to switch to something safer. (And why tell anyone there's arsenic in the candy. They'll never know, and it'll just upset them. Let the buyer beware.)

Profile Image for ap.
43 reviews
February 21, 2022
Wanted a history book with samples of wallpaper, got a wallpaper book with samples of history. Also, the physical composition of the book is annoying.
Profile Image for Bekah.
237 reviews4 followers
October 1, 2018
Reviewed on Books Cats Tea

As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever." - William Morris, 1885

Bitten By Witch Fever is a fascinating glimpse into the history of arsenic wallpapers in the Victorian age. Arsenic was used in everything from household pest control to edible wafers and complexion enhancers to dyes for clothing and wallpapers. The deadly compound was used to help add bright and vivid colors to fabrics and papers, but was easily brushed off or off-gassed in humid weather.
Strangely, few people seemed able to make the connection between rat poison containing arsenic and the arsenic used for other day-to-day purposes. P. 91

Sample images of real arsenic laden wallpapers are interspersed between very short chapters of the fascinating-yet-succinct history. (I am hard pressed to even call them chapters because they are so short.) They are informative but a little too full of tedious information (various years that various places banned arsenic or other poisons--which occasionally slip out of the chronological order of the book). Although I was surprise that Britain, to this day, has never banned the use of arsenic in coloring wallpaper. It was the demand the people had which made arsenic-free wallpapers a popular option, and therefore the standard. Not that this stopped companies from simply lying and claiming their products were arsenic-free.

All in all, Bitten By Witch Fever is a short micro history on arsenic in wallpaper which I had never known about before. The numerous color pages that show wallpapers that have tested positive for arsenic captured my attention even more. Thinking about these images decorating homes while at the same time possibly poisoning the people who adored them is a striking dichotomy. Pick this up if you are looking for something a little different.
Profile Image for Karen Kohoutek.
Author 9 books19 followers
December 14, 2020
The most gorgeous book on poisonous wallpaper you'll ever find! Chock full of fabulous reproductions of toxic paper patterns in amazing variety and color. With a whole overview on the history of arsenic, its omnipresence in a crazy variety of products in the Victorian home, and the popular dismissal of the idea that this was dangerous, despite its well-known use as both a toxic pesticide and a murder weapon. I'd meant to get this when it first came out, and finally got around to it. If I'd known how great it was, I wouldn't have waited! But it was also a more relevant read during the 2020 pandemic: with newspaper articles by European scientists, baffled by the fact that no one will take the dangers of arsenic seriously, when it's been regulated in their countries for years, and British children keep getting killed by things like arsenic-laden food coloring. Also, the whole backstory of Arts and Crafts do-gooder William Morris, with a family fortune based on an arsenic mine, and his coincidental refusal to believe in the danger of the wallpaper he produced, or the conditions of the workers there -- I didn't know any of this, and wow, some things never change!
Profile Image for Christina.
809 reviews27 followers
November 2, 2018
Popsugar 2018 Reading Challenge: A microhistory

This is an interesting book on a weird bit of history that I for one hadn't encountered before. I didn't know, for example, that the Pre-Raphaelites were also wallpaper designers. Also found it a mix of comforting and depressing that "we know this is harmful but we're not going to stop using it" isn't a new attitude. The book design is also interesting: what would have been a very slim volume of text and illustration is padded out by images of the wallpaper in question.

Okay, now for the part where I sound like an old lady: I deducted a whole star because this book was so damn difficult to read. The print was tiny, and the font didn't make it any easier - I got really distracted by the weird loop connecting the "s" and "t" whenever they appeared together in that order. I gave up trying to read the captions on the images because an already tiny and difficult to read print got SO MUCH SMALLER in italics.

So yeah, you've been warned. Bring a magnifying glass to this book.
Profile Image for Kristi.
26 reviews12 followers
December 22, 2021
Informative and written for anyone, this book is fascinating. The chapters are interleaved with images of the wallpapers being discussed, so you can see some of the designs from the manufacturers referenced in the text. Some of these patterns are incredible and I'd love to have fabric or wallpaper with that design available today.

The layout of the book can be a bit challenging. The text pages are narrower than the image pages. Since there are relatively large margins and lots of photos with captions which seem crammed into the pages, this seems a bit of an odd choice. Also, the pattern images are preceeded by a single page (of this narrower size) which gives the manufacturer details and likelihood of arsenic for all of the images in that set of pages (arranged by color) ...which means the print is rather small. It also makes it a little difficult to flip back to that list for a particular section.
Author 2 books2 followers
January 16, 2020
Almost hidden between the distractingly wonderful and originally dangerous wallpapers,
every chapter of this book presents the case for the prosecution.
Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful ?
Owned by William Morris's family, the arsenic mines of Cornwall made him a wealthy and the miners and their families too wretchedly sick. Why was Britain, or rather, the British government so reluctant to legislate against the production of deadly wallpapers owing their brilliant colours to manufacturers' use of arsenic ? Chapter Seven explains, and the reason given is horrific.
The book itself is beautifully presented, but some of the italicised text can be difficult to read, and the glyphs distracting.
Profile Image for Tiina.
1,009 reviews43 followers
July 30, 2021
A gorgeous book made better by the short chapters on the use of arsenic in dyes. It had the history of wallpapers and the road to arsenic being outlawed in the use of dyeing fabrics. I would love to read a whole book on that, even though I enjoyed the actual full page prints from wallpaper patterns. I find it absolutely fascinating how people knew the adverse effect that arsenic had on one's health and decided not change their home decor. Parts of the book - about not believing scientific data - is especially poignant now.
The photos and scattered illustrations of Victorian wallpapers (that were most likely full of arsenic) were a beautiful accompaniment to the text.
A great book, and extremely well designed.
Profile Image for Alise.
11 reviews13 followers
June 25, 2017
legitimately one of the wildest books i've read... i mean making tiny pages of describing many aspects of arsenic, -- death and murder encounters linked with it and dangers of it in domestic / daily life as if it was contained in many daily products, even food and cosmetics(!!) and specially , about arsenic containing wallpapers which also had many samples of it in each chapter. The strangest thing is that the samples kinnd of smelled like the wallpapers that used to contain arsenic, or at least it felt like it!!
Also, i'm not even that interest in topics such as this, but the way this book was put together was one of the most intriguing and interesting things ever
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Larina.
28 reviews
March 19, 2018
Now I want a version of "House" set in Victorian England where the answer in 85% of the cases is arsenic poisoning from various household products. Or it could be additional Sherlock Holmes stories with the same cause of death. Which, of course, is the same thing since "House" basically was the modern medical version of Sherlock Holmes anyway.

Also, I'm keeping this info handy for next time I get into an argument with someone about the need for environmental regulations and workers' rights.
Profile Image for Nova.
9 reviews1 follower
July 20, 2019
I loved this book SO much. I've been driving my friends nuts for weeks talking about it and sharing excerpts, but it's such an intriguing topic and this author does an incredible job of compiling the (diligently researched) information in an accessible way.

The book is beautifully designed and has a ton of vibrantly colored wallpaper reproductions in between each chapter that are so fun to flip through. Even the font in the text chapters is nice to look at. I got this from my library but I can't wait to own a copy.
Profile Image for Camille24 (camilleisreading).
716 reviews1 follower
January 2, 2020
Fascinating micro-history about the use of arsenic in wallpapers during the Victorian era! This book is a quick read and chockful of full-color wallpaper samples, all of which tested positive for arsenic. My favorite section was the one that discussed famous incidents of people murdering with arsenic. It was difficult to detect arsenic as the cause of death since the symptoms are similar to other common maladies of the time, such as diphtheria. This can easily be read in an afternoon and would make a quirky and sinister coffee table read, which is definitely my aesthetic!
Profile Image for Teabea.
18 reviews1 follower
January 11, 2021
I’ve wanted to read Bitten by Witchfever for a few years now and I was even more impressed now I’ve finished it. Hawksley writes in a way that felt approachable and like someone who is genuinely interested in the subject and eagerly imparting their knowledge; it was far from being told or lectured about it.
If you have a passing interest in wallpapers, arsenic or Victorian opinions of the time it was a genuinely interesting read!
Also contains plates of many wallpapers made during the era that are honestly beautiful and a delight to look at!
Profile Image for Ronald Koltnow.
502 reviews14 followers
June 29, 2021
This book has an odd format. Pages of wallpaper samples are interspersed with the text, the text in a series of 14-page pamphlets. The book traces the use of arsenic as a pigment used in coloring, among other things, wallpapers. As the paper aged, or got wet, it emitted poisonous fumes. Many people were sickened and quite a few died as a result of domestic poisoning. Most of Europe acted when it heard of the dangers of arsenic in the home; Britain did not. Hawksley's history, although esoteric, is engaging, and a little scary.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews

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