Truth or Blarney: 19th Century People Poisoned themselves More Than We Do

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There’s definitely a sense that modern life is more poisonous than the past. Remember when we worried about plastic more than pandemics? It seems a little… quaint. Hidden poison is a common worry for people who are training to be professional worriers, and I would not expect the worry about poison to ever go away. It’s just so stylish in any time period.

So while we might poison ourselves differently, do we do it less? Overall, we probably do, when you consider it on a per-person basis. However, being that there are so many more people to ingest just a touch of poison, there’s really no fair means of comparison, I bet. It’s all apples and arsenic, after all.

Recently, I speculated with my sister on my own poisoning–I think my main source of brain damage is still childhood lead poisoning. Alcohol is vying for the top spot, but I still favor lead damage with my diminished intelligence. Duh.

In the middle of the 20th century, people knew lead was bad, and I remember as a little kid seeing public service announcements suggesting paint chips were not good snacks. Truth! What they didn’t emphasize was the way lead was billowing all around us and embedded in the soil we played in when we weren’t swinging on lead pipe playgrounds. Think about that the next time you are tempted to dismiss and  “OK BOOMER” your boomers. There are reasons we are not very smart.

Fortunately, there were people who understood that lead clouds weren’t healthy and they went about doing mitigation, which is just a college word for cutting it out.

Rules were put in place to gradually remove lead from the common experience. A metal as wildly popular and useful as lead always has fans, however, so it took a lot of time and diligence to get it out of fuel. In parts of the world, leaded gas was still legal in the 21st century, so you know, some changes take decades–I mean centuries. Duh.

But that’s just pranks on future generations compared to some poisons that are quick and deadly, right? People didn’t put deadly poison in food, right? Wrong! Meat laced with formaldehyde was a problem in the bad old days, and formaldehyde would ruin your day and kill you pretty easily.

Nineteenth century employees were very efficiently poisoned both at work and at home. They would breathe toxic dust, go home to their flammable homes, and eat moldy bread with fake butter on top–if they were lucky enough to have all that.

Poison wasn’t just a problem for the impoverished in those days. A nineteenth century woman of modest means would have mourned her sea-going husband by donning a veil full of toxic dye. It’s an improvement over having a widow sacrifice her entire life in mourning, but not by much. The veils caused respiratory problems and boils, so something quite death-adjacent.

Eventually, the change of fashion put an end to that poetic poisonous display. Poison veils weren’t stopped because they caused illness; there was no outcry or torrent of protective measures. One might hope the outcry would happen now, but it wasn’t the 19th century way, back then outcrying was for sissies. The veils were just designed out of existence, like buoyant bustles.

I’m sure there’s a modern corollary somewhere, a fashion which is just a teensy bit less deadly. Perhaps funeral stiletto heels? Nobody is going to outlaw them, no matter how many toes and backs they ruin. I lady must have her hooves, I guess.

You may want to consider all this when you hear people vilifying the people who are working to mitigate health and safety hazards in modern life. It may surprise you that anyone bothers to vilify helpers, and it might further surprise you that anyone really gets some steam behind their outrage. Here in America people have very strange hobbies and it’s to be expected.

Whether or not you are a fan of laws that say things like, “Thou Shalt Not Put Formaldehyde in Food,” I think we can all agree, getting good information to the public is key to having a healthy society. Right alongside that is the key of having a public that can understand the good information they receive.

Thank you for coming to my Lead Talk.


For Driving Out Dull Bilious Feeling, strengthening the appetite and increasing the capacity of the body for work, you may want to read my novel, which is filled with light-hearted scenes of 19th century death.

No books for you? Are you sure? I also have a new parenting humor book coming out this summer. Subscribe to my never-nagging newsletter for the scoop on pre-orders, advanced reader copies and coupons for your chicken coop.

Mom is Broke

Is it possible that if you send a dollar to yermom she will buy something stupid with it? ALWAYS. That should never be a reason not to give a little something back. Is rent stupid? MAYBE!!


One Reply to “Truth or Blarney: 19th Century People Poisoned themselves More Than We Do”

  1. Reblogged this on askyermom and commented:

    Sad to say the Oxycontin show I put on last night is a little trite with their musical score, but otherwise doing a B+ job of telling a tremendous poisoning yarn. I would recommend it if I could remember the title. Buh.


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