Arsenic and Old Paste: A look at Victorian Canada’s love affair with wallpaper

Beautiful, but deadly: green wallpaper, popular throughout the British Empire in the late 19th century, owed their vivid colour to arsenic. Fortunately, modern wallpapers imitate historical styles without the associated chemical complications.

 

If there is one thing that Heritage Home owners should be cautious of, it is wallpaper.

Should you ever find yourself alone in a home untouched since the Victorian era, beware. It is likely that–after you have thoroughly dusted the place–you will find yourself ensorcelled by walls covered in earthy green patterns. This is a perfectly normal reaction. The style, variations of which became a mainstay of Victorian interior decoration in Canada and across the British Empire throughout the latter half of the 19th century, is certainly beautiful. Unfortunately, the chemical used to give the wallpaper is gentle green tones is also deadly.

For the better part of half-a-century, the leading wallpaper designs pasted on the walls of homes were filled with arsenic–often Canadian arsenic. It isn’t just the green walls will pose potential health hazards though. Whites usually contained lead. While uranium yellow had not yet come into vogue during the Victorian era, its reds were frequently produced using cadmium.

Best to have professionals strip the walls and start again. Fortunately for you, while modern wallpapers are not chemically identical to those used in the 19th century, Victorian inspired patterns are still widely available.

Before jumping forward to discuss the availability of period-authentic wallpaper today, let us briefly look at the impact it had on Canada’s homes.

Wallpaper took a while to catch on in Canada. While in Britain and continental Europe, it had emerged as a fashionable alternative to paint in the mid-17th century, its Canadian heyday began in the middle of the 19th century.

Initially, wallpaper production had been something of a cottage industry, centered around Quebec. By the 1850s, however, the public’s love of wallpaper outstripped the amount that could be produced. In fact, by 1860, more than 70 percent of Canada’s wallpaper was being imported.  This, to the industrialists in Ontario, looked like an opportunity–and they were quick to enter the wallpaper game. By 1870, new techniques meant that Canada was producing four times as much wallpaper as it had in 1860–though still not enough to satisfy domestic demand, which had doubled in the same period.

Even by the end of the Victorian era–at which point the Canadian wallpaper industry had grown ten times more valuable than it had been in 1860–Canadians would still be net importers of wallpaper. It was as if the more these early Canadians used, the more they wanted. How much of this madness can be attributed to lead poisoning remains a matter of fierce debate.

The switch back to paint would not occur until the 1930s. By this point, a second wave of industrialization had significantly reduced the price and quality of household paints. With the Great Recession cutting household budgets, Canada’s appetite for expensive wallpapers was halved. While there would be brief wallpaper revivals in different parts of Canada during the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s, it would never again be more popular than household paints.

Today, however, wallpaper enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the industry is undergoing something of a revival. Of course, modern wallpapers offer more than just historically accurate and chemically safe recreations of classic Victorian designs. Modern wallpapers are also far easier to apply and remove than early ones. While they may never become more popular than interior paints, wallpaper remains an excellent option for heritage home owners eager to give their buildings’ interiors an air of timeless authenticity.

Of course, were they alive today, some Victorians would not approve. To quote Oscar Wilde on his deathbed, “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.”

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