I am sorry for some reason all the images from this post have disapeared I will try to find the orginal files but in the meantime I have left it up incase the text and links are useful
I thought it would be interesting to examine the hidden issues connected to buying vintage items ,while furs tend to attract the most negative attention there are other issues less obvious in buying many vintage items.
The most worrying are those connected to health hazards and especially substances such as arsenic and mercury used in vintage items production,though not common there were cases of poisoning connected to Victorian gowns even during the 19thc ,several dye works were closed because unsafe amounts of arsenic were found in clothing .Pre 1890s green clothing may well have had arsenic used in the creation of the dye .
(painting seen here http://fannycornforth.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/passion-for-paxton.html)
Tales of clothing used to poison ladies was not limited to myths of the Medici court
http://www.dressaday.com/2010/01/dont-wear-green-tarletan-dresses.html(masachutists board of health 1883)
Attention has very frequently been called to the presence of large amounts of arsenic in green tarlatan, which has given rise so many times to dangerous symptoms of poisoning when made into dresses and worn, so that it is very rare now to see a green tarlatan dress. This fabric is still used, however, to a very dangerous extent, chiefly for the purposes of ornamentation, and may often be seen embellishing the walls and tables at church and society fairs, and in confectionery, toy and dry-goods stores. The writer has repeatedly seen this poisonous fabric used at church fairs and picnics as a covering for confectionery and food, to protect the latter from flies. As is well known, the arsenical pigment is so loosely applied to the cloth that a portion of it easily separates upon the slightest motion. Prof. Hoffmann after examining 11 large number of specimens estimated that twenty or thirty grains of the pigment would separate from a dress per hour, when worn in a ball-room….
But green tarlatan is not the only fabric which contains arsenic. We find arsenic sometimes in other substances used in making articles of wearing apparel, usually in the form of arsenical pigments. The writer detected a large amount of arsenic in a specimen of cloth known as “Foulard cambric,” which had been made into a dress; after wearing the dress a short time severe conjunctivitis was produced, together with nasal catarrh, pharyngitis, and symptoms of gastric irritation. The pattern of the dress consisted of alternate stripes of light-blue and navy-blue, and contained 0.291 grm. per square meter. Conjunctivitis has also been recorded from wearing of “tulle” dresses. A pustular eruption upon the neck and arms was caused by “a splendid dark-green dress, trimmed with light-green leaves,” obtained “from a well-known Parisian atelier;” the dress was found to contain “a large percentage of arsenic.”
Excessive irritation of the skin has frequently been caused by wearing stockings colored with an arsenical pigment. The writer has detected arsenic most frequently in light-red, magenta-colored and brown stockings;…..
There is what appears to be an excellent study of the subject here
While it seems unlikely to me that any vintage gown would be worn frequently enough for any modern poisoning to be severe ,the use of chemicals in the dye process should be an issue anyone wearing Victorian items is aware of .While most of us are unlikely to wear Victorian gowns ,I have worn Victorian stockings on one occasion when absolute accuracy was required and use Victorian lace and despite concerns about damage I always throughly soak and then wash under running water vintage items ,,Stockings ,gloves ,bonnets shawls may all have traces of arsenic .
report from Victorian newspaper
‘The evil effects of socks are well-known,’ said one newspaper, reporting that an MP was among many who had found themselves disabled after wearing arsenical stockings.
It’s should not be assumed this was a health scare that like many modern ones is based on hype and odd incidents of susceptible individuals,the amounts of arsenic found were extremely high and well recorded
Examining the ball gown worn by one London society hostess, a doctor found 60 grains of Scheele’s Green per square yard – enough to kill 12 people. More alarmingly still, it was so loosely bound into the fabric that even the gentlest waltz could send it billowing out in a cloud of poisonous dust.
While not many people may buy or wear vintage Victorian clothing Lovers of vintage Victorian or pre Victorian decorative items should also be aware it was used in curtains table runners ,paint on toys and other domestic items ,stuffed animals and wallpapers.Its considered a possibility that Napoleon was poisoned not by his captors but by the green wallpaper in his rooms .The ubiquity of arsenic in victorian wall coverings should not be underestimated and care taken when removing old paper from walls,,
a revealing letter of 1885 from Morris to his dyer Thomas Wardle suggested that he might have used arsenic greens in his famous and desirable designs. The letter piqued my interest, and early samples of Morris &Co. wallpapers were tracked down to the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, in the UK, once the childhood home of Morris. The Gallery had a scrap,10 cm by 10 cm, of Trellis, Morris’ first wallpaper design, and the third to be printed. It came from the home of Morris’ general foreman George Campfield, and for this reason was thought to be of early origin. The scrap I received was a red rose on a green branch. The Museum allowed me to remove tiny flakes of pigments from Trellis for microanalysis. The results were immediate and impressive. The green branch was an arsenic-copper salt, the red rose vermilion. A highly toxic piece of art! This research was published in Nature..
scarlett O haras green curtain dress was probably a major health hazard!
Moving on from the well documented use of arsenic ,there is the issue of Mercury
What makes this dangerous is mercury’s extreme neurotoxicity. That is, its devastating effects on the brain and nervous system. The “mad hatters” of Victorian times suffered from mercury poisoning when they rubbed the metal into felt cloth to preserve it. Mental confusion, trembling and eventually death can result from inhaling the vapors of this liquid metal, Anyone buying a Victorian or earlier hat should be aware of the human cost which was involved in its creation and be aware that its possible enough mercury remain it the fibres to make wearing it hazardous and it is wise to be aware that mercury was used in the process of gilding mirrors ,furniture and jewelry. I have come out in unpleasant welts when I wore a moleskin cape and was told it may well have been a reaction to vestiges of mercury used to cure the moleskin.
there are other less well known problems such as lead ,this is likely to be present in old paint /varnish on vintage furniture or woodwork ,while hair ornaments may contain it in quantities unlikely to harm adults it would be wise to keep vintage hair ornaments ,jewelry ,vanity sets etc away from toddlers who might be tempted to put them in their mouths..
It is also unwise to use Victorian cages for keeping pet birds .
Its is easy to identify old lead painted items as the paint forms a distinctive “alligator ” effect often mimicked (minus the lead) in distressed furniture .
There is also the ethical issue of the hidden human cost associated with the creation of vintage clothing ,the factory conditions which may mean that a child was maimed or killed producing the very cloth your victorian gown is made from or the curtains your hanging,Most certainly any hat wil have been produced at the expense of the hat makers health and of course Victorian and Edwardian hats frequently contain preserved birds ,,or beetles a trend that contributed to the destruction of many species of colourful birds and beetles and the destruction of eco systems .I personally do not have problems with vintage clothing on moral grounds for the same reason I dont have issues with vintage furs any harm was done in the past and not to use items already created is wasteful though buying and funding any modern industrys run on Victorian lines is obviously morally untenable.
It should be remembered that there are however restrictions on the buying and selling of certain items
The sale of ivory is of course strictly controlled,its possible to sell vintage ivory items such as combs or fans but its essential to be able to prove the item was made prior to the ban and purchased legally .
Finaly when considering wearing period costume it is wise to consider the health risks ,if you will be wearing corsets regularly for long term work as a re enactor etc I would suggest it is unwise to buy steel boned ones and that more flexible plastic boned ones would be more sensible as these are less restrictive but will still give the basic shape needed, all be it without the perfectly accurate rigidity.It is also wise to buy the best quality hoops possible at least cotton and if possible have thicker fabric ones made ,I know that the USA has reports of experiments to establish the safety of hoops and news reports of cases where a hoop petticoat caught fire causing serious burns.I have perosnaly heard of one case in the past few months of a re enactors being bruned from a hoop that caught light.
I hope this post will not have deterred buyers and re enactors but proved interesting and useful.
Extended treatment of victorian experiments and cases can be found here
This post is based on resreach done for my talk
Arsenic and Old Lace ,or fashion to die for ,the story of victorian costume