Don’t Wear Green Tarletan Dresses

by Erin on January 6, 2010

From the (1883) Annual Report of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity:

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; in one case, that of a child, which came to the writer's knowledge, great inflammation of that portion of the skin which came in contact with the stocking took place first, then occurred symptoms of general poisoning, which resulted in a short time in death.

Dr. Jabez Hogg reports also among other articles of wearing apparel fatal cases of poisoning from the green flannel lining of boots, and poisoning by maroon flannel shirts, by calico shirts, gloves, coat sleeves, hat linings, and paper collars.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee-Ann January 6, 2010 at 5:58 am

State Board for Health, Lunacy and Charity? – Sign me up!


sewducky January 6, 2010 at 7:17 am

Having a phobia of poison (seriously, I am not joking about this, I almost cannot function with it), this is like WTF? Now I gotta spaz about my clothing too?


Alice January 6, 2010 at 8:09 am

Oh my, Im glad we dont have to deal with this nowdays. Nope, we just have synthetic fabrics and dyes—yippee!


Anonymous January 6, 2010 at 8:37 am

I love this blog and have been enjoying it for a while, on that note…sewducky, please dont read the following…A lot of clothing currently has formaldehyde. And there are several legal cases currently against Victorias Secret for causing rashes from formaldehyde. It is used to keep fabric stain and wrinkle free as well disinfected. It is good to wash fabric and clothing before sewing it and wearing it.


Packrat January 6, 2010 at 8:50 am

You mean in all the clothing/fabric classes I took that no one mentioned or wrote about this??? Sheesh. This was very interesting.


"Cornelia Jackson" January 6, 2010 at 9:12 am

Maybe Scarlett OHaras apple-green tarlatan caused her mood swings.


Evelyn January 6, 2010 at 10:23 am

Isnt this where the mad hatter term comes from – arsenic used when making hats?


Theresa January 6, 2010 at 11:27 am

Wow – gives new meaning to Arsenic and Old Lace….Fashion kills…Killer Dress…


Sara January 6, 2010 at 2:13 pm

OH MY! Love the comment about Scarlett!


Jennifer Murphy January 6, 2010 at 2:35 pm

@Evelyn, mad hatter syndrome is actually the result of mercury poisoning. Mercuric nitrate was used in curing felt and led to symptoms of dementia in hat makers.


Cookie January 6, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I do not even know what tarletan IS. I just know Meg March had one in silvery drab and Jo had one in maroon (with a stiff, gentelmanly collar) in Little Women. Though now that I think about it, those were their poplin party dresses. The tarletan Meg had was white, and she wore it with a blue sash to Sally Moffits weekend party in the chapter Meg Goes to Vanity Fair. Then it got torn. However, even though I know all that, I still dont know what it actually is.


Theresa January 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm

@ cookie,tarlatan [tltn]n(Clothing, Personal Arts Crafts / Textiles) an open-weave cotton fabric, used for stiffening garments[from French tarlatane, variant of tarnatane type of muslin, perhaps of Indian origin]Collins English Dictionary Complete and Unabridged 6th Edition 2003. William Collins Sons Co. Ltd 1979, 1986 HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003form the website:


Sandy January 6, 2010 at 3:44 pm

This is such a valuable post!I have been trying to work out why so many British ladies of vintage years have been telling me they wont wear or do not like green. Their mothers had always told them green was unlucky. I never heard it til I came to the UK.I could hardly get one lady to choose which green felt she would use for leaves for a flower!These ladies in my classes would be the 3rd generation from the phenomenon reported here in the late 1800s. yes! I knew the history of fashion was valuable.It must have been a very frightening thing at the time. Can you imagine the mother/governess of the little girl with the socks? She must have found it so difficult not to feel guilty that she made her wear them.Thanks for posting this.Sandy in the UK


Anonymous January 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I read in some Victorian-era book on child care that one should never use green ribbons on a childs clothing, as the child could put the ribbons in her/his mouth and be poisoned by them.I wish I could remember what book that was. Its going to bug me now….Emsmom


nuranar January 6, 2010 at 4:10 pm

As a supplement to Theresas definition of tarletan, among reenactor (and possibly other) circles it is known as cheesecloth with an attitude. That is, it is very lightweight, coarsely woven, semisheer, and crisp. Ideal for summer and dancing dresses.


bani January 6, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Hugely interesting, I agree!


DrJulieAnn January 6, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Then it was arsenic. Today it is lead…One of the big take-aways I got from my textiles class is to ALWAYS wash your clothes before wearing them. It is amazing how many chemicals are used in the process of making the yarn and then fabric. The finishing processes alone are mind boggling!


What-I-Found January 6, 2010 at 7:01 pm

There are still enough chemicals in fabrics that someone who works with new fabrics all the time has to be careful. I had a friend who had a quilt shop in a smallish house. It was packed floor to ceiling with bolts of fabrics and she had to air out the place when ever new deliveries were made…and it still affected her health. That was after years and years, but still….


Emily January 6, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Oh wow. Poison green is one of the prettiest colors. I just didnt realize that it was from real poison! Theres a quilting collection Poison green and cheddar, and Ive been waiting for my LQS to carry it.


Anonymous January 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Okay I am officially washing before wearing, using, etc. I thought people were just being picky. I didnt think about all the processing. Yucky.JenL


marolsh January 6, 2010 at 10:12 pm

If youve ever taken a sewing machine in for servicing, you have probably gotten a small sample of the machines stitch-out when it was returned to you. This is commonly done on tarlatan, a coarsely woven, heavily starched, and who-knows-what-else fabric made of cotton. I hope theyre not still using arsenic in it!


Latter-Day Flapper January 7, 2010 at 7:14 am

Even more disturbing: Early food colorants were at least as toxic as early dyes. Thank your lucky stars for the FDA.Im not really sure the world is any more toxic now than it was then; I suspect that its just better reported.


WendyBee January 7, 2010 at 7:53 am

Great argument for governmental regulation for consumer products! China should take note!WendyBee


Nathalie January 7, 2010 at 10:10 am

Im with you Cookie. I read this post and had to google tarlatan to know what it was. What fascinating comments too – arsenic and mercury in clothes… no wonder life expectancy was short! I remember my great-grandmother owning a fabulous pair of purple elbow-length spider silk gloves (which always felt really cold to the touch). She explained to me that they stopped using spider silk because they found it to be harmful (to humans; although I cant believe it did the spiders much good either!). Do you costume historians know anything about the use of spider silk in clothing as Id be really interested? (Of course it might just have been that she was trying to scare me away from them so I wouldnt play and damage them!).


Nathalie January 7, 2010 at 10:31 am

Having now googled spider silk, I discover how rare it is and how unlikely it is those gloves were made of the stuff… so I guess that answers my question. My great-grandmother did have a way of warning children off her belongings (although in my case, it only made me more fascinated by those beautiful dangerous gloves!).


Anonymous January 7, 2010 at 10:53 am

Ive seen mention of never baste with green thread. I suppose that would be one way of minimizing your exposure to toxic green pigment.One Victoran book (cant remember) suggested having a chemist analyze your planned wallpaper for arsenic — found in browns as well as greens.One wonders about the life-expectancy of the dyers and weavers, if the clothing was poisonous to the wearers!


Alaina January 7, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Great post, and interesting- but mostly as an example of overblown scare-journalism. Id like to see a modern analysis of extant green silk gowns from the 19th see how many really contained arsenic. I suspect that this article is akin to the articles you can read now in womens magazines: Your breakfast is causing you cancer! and then it turns out that the effect is .00001%, and based on a single study that is contradicted by a dozen other studies.


puncturedbicycle January 9, 2010 at 6:11 am

Ive never come across spider silk before, and I have obsessed about vintage clothes for over 20 years. Humans are endlessly creative and resourceful it seems.


Lily January 9, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Hahaha thats the funniest thing Ive ever read!


moom January 11, 2010 at 2:26 pm

And another dangerous Victorian fashion – the full-mourning veils. The black dye didnt take to the fabric of the veils well and as widows in full mourning and even half-mourning would draw the veil over their face if they had to go out and end up with itchy, sore eyes if they were lucky, blindness if they werent.


Eirlys January 13, 2010 at 8:10 am

Erin, forgive the scepticism but did you write this? Its so OTT that I had to ask. Though truth is, as we know, stranger than fiction.


Anonymous January 24, 2010 at 8:42 pm

To emsmom – the book youre thinking of is Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Children printed in more than 13 editions (the one I read from 1878) and at least 5 languages (include Tamil).And while wearing green was dangerous, many (especially the young and vain) scoffed and became daring continuing to wear the stuff.In addition to fabrics, also of danger was face powders with arsenic, arsenic used to make eyes glisten, outgassing of wallpapers and lead paints, bread from bakeries (weird additives to reduce production cost and increase profits), milk from unknown sources, innoculations, medicines (including what we would think of as common OTCs), wet-nurses, almost any meat, and almost everything else.Probably like living in China right now.


Anonymous January 27, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Those magenta-colored stockings sound cool


Lady Anne May 9, 2015 at 11:51 pm

Alaina, this article is NOT over blown fluff. It is dead-on correct, if you’ll pardon the expression. Arsenic was used to fix the dye in clothing, mercury was used in felt making, and phosphorus was used in making matches. Even today, many of William Morris’ wallpapers are so toxic the public has to look at rooms from the doorway; they are not allowed into the interior of the room. The expression “mad as a hatter” comes from the mental instability caused by mercury, and “phossy jaw” was a form of cancer which affected people who worked in match factories. Factories often fired older workers, so when the first grey hair showed up, men would use a lead comb to hide the grey, which lead to lead poisoning. A person could build up a tolerance to arsenic, but stopping it would be fatal. One woman poisoned her husband by gradually adding arsenic (which is white in its pure form) to his powered sugar donuts. After several months, she stopped, and he died in agony that afternoon. It took years to figure out how she killed him.

A wise housewife would soak a slice of store-bought bread in a plate of water to see if the baker had used ashes to “stretch” his flour. While many people today complain about the FDA and other government interference, we should be grateful.


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