The Historical Link Between Striking Colors and Deadly Influences

Used historic vintage paint cans in different colors

Discussions about colors usually revolve around the joy which they bring into our lives. We might discuss which color to paint a room. Or we might talk about how various colors bring out the emotional context in a particular work of art. And of course the myriad colors continually on display in the natural world have inspired people throughout recorded history. However, it’s important to remember that neither beauty nor nature imply safety.

Some of the most dangerous animals in the world announce themselves with beautiful colors. Beautiful skylines often imply an incoming storm. And human history is itself full of stories where a fascination with color turned into a discovery of new dangers. Some of the most celebrated colors in human history have had poisonous, toxic and even radioactive properties.

Adding a Not So Healthy Glow to Your Smile

Vintage pocket watch with painted radioactive radium numerals

Radium was first discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie. Their discovery would change the face of science and technology. At the time scientists and the public alike were fascinated by the substance. Radium, and the derivative term radiation, would help unlock the very foundation of our universe. Scientific minds were shifting from a macroscopic view of the world to an atomic. But the public of the time was more enthused by radium’s more immediate promises.

Marketers were as keen on this new substance as the scientists. Before long radium was found in a wide variety of different products. A huge selling point for radium was its ability to sparkle or glow. One of the first and most popular applications for radium would be found in glowing paint. What’s more, the glowing pigment was often painted onto delicate surfaces by hand. A watch which could display the time even in the dark was an obvious draw.

The so called “radium girls” were a collection of women who were hired to paint watch faces with the new radium based paints. The women were instructed to continually create a fine point on their brushes by wetting it with their lips. This involved constantly placing radium on or even into their bodies.

What’s more, the radium dust would circulate inside the workrooms. This wasn’t seen as a detriment either. Instead, it was perceived as a benefit of working as a “radium girl”. Some women would even wear their best dresses to work in order to ensure their finery was dusted with radium powder. The radium in their hair and on their dresses would ensure that the women quite literally sparkled when they went out on the town.

Radium’s light emitting properties made it a smash hit in quite a few different venues. The aforementioned radium paint would create a pleasing green glow. The light radium dust tended to create more of a sparkling effect. And a larger concentration of radium on its own would typically glow a pale blue.

Detailed infographic of the element radium

Using radium in cosmetics opened the way for some eye catching color combinations. What’s more, radium could even bring out people’s natural colors. Many radium products created an attractive flush along with a feeling of energy. Sadly, we now know that this seemingly healthy effect was due to the radium stimulating red blood cells.

People at the time were amazed by radium. It created some striking colors and sometimes even made people feel better. The average person did understand that radium emitted some kind of energy. However, it’s important to remember that at the time people didn’t have the benefit of modern history or much understanding of proper scientific methodology. The idea of something emitting energy was seen as an obvious benefit. After all, we all want to feel energetic. Therefore anything which adds energy should be beneficial.

It was the first deaths among the young radium girls from cancer which helped to educate the world about the dangers of radiation. It has also left us with another colorful legacy. If you’ve ever wondered why radiation is depicted with a green glow in movies and TV, then you’ve found the answer. It all stems from the radium based paint. The green glow of the paint comes from the interaction of radium with copper and zinc sulfide. However, over time people simply began to remember the green glow when the subject of radium, or radiation, came up.

Interestingly enough this wasn’t the first time that radioactive items were marketed to the public. Uranium was sometimes used in glasswork as far back as the 1800s. This substance would lend a distinctive yellow tinge to cups, tables and many other items. The fact that people used uranium in their dining room might come as a shock given what happened to the radium girls. But thankfully it appears that the levels of uranium used in glassware weren’t significant enough to pose any true risk.

Continuing to Chase After the Beauty of a Green World

Green arsenic waters in Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland in New Zealand

This infatuation with a dangerous green is hardly unique to radium’s story. A beautiful pigment known as Paris Green caught the world by storm in 1814. The pigment was the creation of two chemists. Russ and Sattler were attempting to create a superior competitor to the then popular Scheele’s Green. The chemists thought they had created something amazing after seeing the results of a formula which mixed copper acetate and arsenic trioxide. They would name their beautiful new hue Emerald Green. However, this would soon be changed to the more marketable Paris Green.

Their new pigment would quickly catch on in a number of different markets. It proved to be a popular choice for wallpapers and other home furnishings. However, Paris Green would truly catch on as a fashion statement.

The color’s rise to fame in the fashion industry can be traced back to Empress Eugenie of France. The fashionable royal was supposedly seen attending the Paris Opera while adorned in a stunning new dress. Her ensemble’s beautiful green coloring remained radiant even as the light faded away. It’s little wonder that anyone interested in fashion would seek out Eugenie’s secret.

The end effect is that people would soon have Paris Green in a wide variety of places. Homeowners would happily adorn their walls with Paris Green based coloring. Women would seek out articles of clothing made with Paris Green. And during this process more and more people would fall prey to a mysterious new illness.

Detailed infographic of the element arsenic

The modern eye can instantly see the problem inherent to continued contact with anything containing high levels of arsenic. We shouldn’t be too quick to leverage our modern perspective on the chemists though. The color they were trying to surpass also contained arsenic. People at the time simply didn’t see much danger in substances containing arsenic. But whatever their reasoning, the result was both predictable and tragic.

In 1862 a doctor named Thomas Orton would leverage one of the first major blows against the use of arsenic based pigments. He was suspicious of an ailment which impacted one family while leaving their neighbors unharmed. He insisted that one of the deceased children of the family be officially tested for poisons during her autopsy. The results did indeed show that the child had died from arsenic poisoning. However, the presiding judge felt that this was objectionable and ruled it a case of death by natural causes.

The world’s love of arsenic based coloring was simply too entrenched to go down without a fight. This resistance to change even endured when some people’s corpses were so filled with arsenic that the whites of their eyes had turned green. Again, it’s easy to judge from a modern perspective. But the methods of both science and communication in those days were quite different than it is now. People and their cultures were often slow to change.

The cycle would come full circle as royalty helped put an end to Paris Green’s popularity. This proved quite fitting given Empress Eugenie’s role in popularizing Paris Green in the first place. In 1879 Queen Victoria would be shocked to hear that one of her guests felt ill. He attributed the illness to the green wallpaper in his room. Queen Victoria immediately ordered that all green wallpaper be removed from the palace. The news spread and the popularity of Paris Green fell even further.

An Artistic View of Lead Poisoning

Lead paint danger warning sign on a white colored worn down wall

Of course colors other than green have been associated with deadly medical issues. One of the longest running dangers comes from a particular type of white paint used as far back as Greece in the 4th century BCE. This lead white color was indeed quite brilliant. It’s easy to see why people were so captivated by it. This is especially true when we consider how much work ancient culture’s often needed to put into dye production.

Noted author and naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about the proper creation of lead white paint amid his other works. Sadly, while Pliny the Elder was lauded for his medical curiosity he never linked the paint with lead poisoning. To the modern eye it’s clear why lead based white paint would be such an issue. Creating, and often even using the pigment, could produce clouds of lead particles in the air.

Over time, many of the symptoms would work their way into a mystique of sorts. Many painters showed a delicate constitution, coughing fits, melancholy or even palsies. This became known as a painter’s colic. Today we can recognize these symptoms as a sign of lead poisoning. However, in the past these symptoms were seen as going hand in hand with an artistic temperament. A modern comparison might be to think of how our media portrays artists with a certain dreaminess.

As we saw with Paris Green, people are often loathe to part with a source of beauty. Lead whitened paint was uncontested for a wide swath of human history. It wasn’t until 1978 that the world was forced to admit that even small amounts of lead could prove disastrous for a person’s health.

Detailed infographic of the element lead

Drifting Through the Rivers of History

At this point it’s natural to find ourselves shocked by the negative impact of various colors throughout history. But at the same time it’s important to keep in mind where the draw of these colors came from in the first place. People began using all of these dangerous colors for one simple reason. Human beings are in awe of beauty. New and expressive colors often bring out the very best in humanity. It drives us to create or view breathtaking works of art. When we see new colors we often begin to relate to the world with a newfound respect. The same colors which acted as a poison to the body would have helped inspire the spirit of others.

The negative effects of our search for beauty is obvious within these stories. But at the same time we see countless centuries where our ancestors continually searched for new beauty and inspiration. We can’t magically restore the health of people who lost it while searching out that beauty. But we can take an occasional moment to reflect on the beauty found all over the world. We can appreciate the healthy greens of the forests. We can admire yellow tinted glass which no longer needs uranium. And we can applaud works of art which portray bright whites without needing any lead paint.

We’ve reached a point in history where we can appreciate a wide range of brilliant colors any time we desire. The road to that prize was often difficult. However, an argument can be made that this just means that we owe it to the people of the past to admire the beauty of the present.