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

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  259 ratings  ·  54 reviews
‘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 & ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published October 11th 2016 by Thames Hudson (first published October 2016)
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Average rating 4.28  · 
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 ·  259 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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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 t
Nov 21, 2017 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Nov 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Jan 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
May 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 m
Nov 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jessica Furtado
Oct 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art-and-fashion
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.
Sep 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 st
Apr 06, 2020 rated it it was ok
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 any
Dec 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Beautifully designed book and fascinating history of the use of arsenic in wallpaper (amongst other things).
C.J. Bunce
Sep 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Originally published online at

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
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.)

Sep 30, 2018 rated it liked it
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
Karen Kohoutek
Dec 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
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 w
Esther O'Neill
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 wallpape
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
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.
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 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
Jan 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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 m ...more
Jan 11, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 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 a
Dec 09, 2018 rated it liked it
It's a rather informative book that explains not only how arsenic made it's appearance in wallpaper but, also, in many other everyday objects like some high-quality dresses. The one thing that threw me off about the book was that the chapters are printed on smaller pages than the rest of the book and the print is a bit smaller, too. Be prepared for old-fashioned script that makes esses look like effs. The prints of the types of wallpaper available at the time are quite pretty though. ...more
Judy Aulik
Feb 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
A lovely book but very annoying to read. Pages were of two different sizes, and I had to hold it from the top edge to keep the smaller, text pages from shutting. Then, they used a strange font which was difficult to read, with ligatures idiosyncratically placed between letters.
Great topic, decent writing, poor execution.
Sep 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A book about wallpaper? Why would I give it 5 stars? Because it's a fascinating story of the use of arsenic in the mid-19th century, specifically in wallpapers. The 'story' is written in small pamphlets which are interspersed between samples of the beautiful Victorian wallpapers designed by William Morris and his contemporaries. Worth reading. ...more
Oct 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: decorating, 2019
Finally read it before I had to return it, and it was every bit as informative as it was beautiful. I was initially drawn to the many gorgeous plates of just wallpaper designs. But I found the format of the Dutch doors with the smaller research bits to be really useful and informative. It is above all a coffee table book, but a really educational one.
Laura Bagnall
Jan 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Learned a lot about arsenic and how it was basically in everything back in the day! The pictures of the wallpapers are lovely too!
It is funny because the government didn't pass any laws to stop wallpaper with arsenic pigments being sold, but most other countries did. Shows that not much has changed when it comes to quick reactions to public health crisies!
May 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: microhistory
This was a wonderful description of arsenic in the Victorian era, particularly in use in wallpapers. The layout of the book was very unique and it was full of examples of old wallpaper designs which I loved browsing.
Melissa Marie
Dec 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is physically decadent and the information inside is a treasure. Explaining to others that this book is "about the history of arsenic in wallpapers" didn't get them as excited as I was but the implications and history of this topic is truly fascinating. ...more
Christina Gagliano
Mar 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Who knew a book about arsenic in wallpaper would be so fascinating? I loved this book though--lots of interesting history surrounded (literally) by colorful Victorian wallpaper, all of which has tested positive for arsenic.
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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.

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