In the mid nineteenth century, a spate of poisonings began to raise alarm in the newspapers. Almost anybody was at risk, and the culprit was, as yet, unclear. But the source of the poison was no Victorian arch criminal; it was a far subtler, domestic killer, hidden in plain sight.
(Image from wikimedia commons)
In May 1869, an article appeared in the St James’ Magazine, provocatively titled ‘Poisonous Hosiery’. ‘Poison, Poison everywhere’, exclaimed the author. ‘Poison in the food we eat, poison in the liquors we drink, poison in the air we breathe’. Now, it seemed, not even clothes were sacred. With the inherent danger in almost every facet of life, it was a wonder, they went on, that civilised people were not poisoned off the face of the earth! The matter was reported in newspapers from Dundee to Essex.
The story began when a London surgeon, one ‘Dr Webber’ approached the London Guildhall, after detecting what he described as ‘a probable source of much injury to the public health’. The source of this danger was neither poor sanitation nor contagion. It was socks. According to Webber, certain pairs of coloured socks (including fashionable mauve and magenta!) were then on sale, which contained dye obtained from the poisonous substance aniline ‘the cause of much constitutional and local complaint to many people’.
Webber claimed that the poison caused swelling and irritation. In one case, the boots of one of his patients had to be cut off because the feet had swollen so much. Youths in London, Oxford and Cambridge, reportedly suffered ulcers and sores on their feet.
The presiding alderman, Mr Dakin, sat and listened with some bemusement. ‘He himself had never felt any ill effects from the wearing of coloured socks’, nor from any other coloured garments, so it simply could not be true. Going further, he chided the surgeon for potentially disconcerting the public, or ‘interfering with honest intentioned tradesmen’, unless he could provide hard evidence of the danger.
But Webber was not finished, and sent samples to eminent chemists, who carried out tests. These investigations proved the surgeon’s fears were not unfounded. Experiments by a prominent chemist proved that the offending dyes did indeed contain compounds of arsenic.
A committee was swiftly formed to investigate the subject, and advertisements placed in the Times newspaper, calling for all those who suspected they might have been affected by poisonous hosiery to come forward. Something of the scepticism of Alderman Dakin lingered in the advertisement. The potential list of suggested ‘persons who may have suffered’ included ‘the dandy whose delicately tinted foot coverings have irritated and erupted his skin [and] the girl…whose flaming stockings have given rise to pimply outbursts’. All were called upon not only to describe their symptoms for the betterment of their fellow creatures, but to ‘sacrifice their favoured chausettes upon the hygienic altar’…i.e. send their underwear in for examination!
But reports continued to emerge from other sources. The Lancet reported the case of a ballet dancer appearing in The Doge of Venice who had suffered a ‘cutaneous eruption’ on one foot. Further investigation suggested that the heat of her foot had acted upon the dye to affect the skin. Crucially, the shoe of the affected foot was bright red, whilst the other foot, wearing a white shoe, had ‘absolute immunity. A Coventry physician, Dr McVeagh, noted that a patient suffered almost unbearable pain and discomfort from his feet, after buying a pair of socks in Birmingham “in the Marquis of Hastings colours’. Even despite efforts to remove them from sale, ‘some of the mischievous goods’ were clearly still at large.
A battery of further tests was commissioned on a wider range of hosiery, and soon the Victorian fixation with hygiene gradually overtook scepticism about the possibility that socks could be deadly. A well-known French chemist, M.L. Roussin, and a physician Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, subjected suspect socks and hose to a barrage of experiments, extracting the dye, before evaporating it and extracting a substance that proved to be a poison ‘of not insignificant power’. The author of the St James article noted with distaste the effects of the poison on unfortunate animals, including dogs, rabbits and frogs (‘Alas! Poor brutes – tortured for an idea’), which included stomach disorders, fevers, weakness and, in some cases death.
(Image from Wellcome Images)
On humans, the French chemists asserted that, although no deaths had actually occurred, the substance within the socks was certainly capable of doing so. More than this, they used their experiments to caution about the dangers of ‘progress’ in ‘which the incessant progress of the chemical arts’ could lead to increasing risks to the human race and health of mankind. The College of Physicians was entreated to swiftly come up with a name for the condition.
Some enterprising retailers leapt upon the opportunity offered by potentially deadly underwear, and took out their own advertisements for alternative ‘safe’ products. One advert in 1879 (with the un-alluring headline ‘Poisonous Stockings’) argued that while ‘medical testimony’ had proved that coloured stockings were injurious to health, all risk could be avoided by simply purchasing “Balbriggan silk embroidered’ socks or half-hose, which were coloured by harmless vegetable dyes.
Once the offending substances had been identified and isolated, steps were taken to ensure that hosiery was no longer potentially fatal, and the crisis gradually abated. But the next time you hear yourself saying ‘my feet are killing me’, spare a thought for the diligent Dr Webber and be grateful it isn’t literal.