Something strange was afoot in the 1870s and 1880s: fashionable people were being poisoned by their stockings. It all began with the new aniline dyes and an innocent vogue for brightly colored and striped stockings, which opened new vistas for ladies wishing to highlight a well-turned ankle.
Serious objection is made to the new style of stockings in which the stripes run lengthwise. It takes too much mud to show the full pattern. Cleveland [OH] Leader 12 January 1876: p. 3
Here are some news stories highlighting the horrors of hosiery:
RED STOCKINGS Poison Two Young Ladies and an Arrest Follows.
Ben Rabenstein, a pack-peddler, some time ago, sold to Mrs. Ben Raeder, on Wilstach Street, near Liberty, some red stockings, which he guaranteed to be fast colors. Mrs. Raeder’s two daughters, Lillie, aged 16, and Amelia, aged 15, wore the stockings to a picnic in Cumminsville last Saturday. The next morning they suffered from a violent itching, followed by eruptions where the stockings had chafed the skin. Their condition rapidly grew worse, until now they are in a terrible state. Mrs. Raeder went to see “Squire Tyrrell about it, and had a warrant issued for Rabenstein’s arrest. Cincinnati [OH] Post 6 August 1892: p. 2
Poisoned by Red Stockings
Boston, Ind., Dec. 20. Both legs of Miss Eva Dooly were amputated at the knee last night. The amputation was made necessary by the poisoned condition of her limbs resulting from the wearing of red stockings. Leavenworth [KS] Herald 22 December 1894: p. 1
Was this some sort of Borgian conspiracy? Was there a mad poisoner at work? I have neither the wit nor the chemistry to speculate about specific lethal agents in these deadly articles of dress, although in the 60 or so articles I have read, arsenic, prussic acid (as bought by Lizzie Borden to “clean her sealskins”—a nice euphemism for patricide.), and mercury are all either mentioned as possible dyes or mordants (dye fixatives). Red dyes, highly popular for stockings, were never color-fast and needed a fixative. The answer to these crimes of fashion lies in the very prosaic balance sheet. Some articles on the subject mention the cheapness of the toxic ingredients as the reason for their use.
The following article was syndicated widely in 1875 and makes very clear the blisters provoked by the poison arose along the lines of the colored stripes on the stockings.
The recent introduction and extended use of colored or striped stockings, and the evil effects experienced by the wearers of them, have served to direct the attention the physician and analysist to the question of the dyes used in coloring them. The Pall Mall Gazette, in noticing the evil effects of wearing colored hose, cites several instances where the first symptoms were intense irritation in the skin of the feet, swelling and an inflamed appearance; then an outbreak of watery blisters of all sizes, from groups of the size of hemp-seed to single blisters on the sole of the foot larger than a five-shilling piece. The condition was accompanied by general feverishness, rigors, loss of appetite, and a sensation of pervading malaise. In a sever attack the patient was rarely able to walk for three weeks, and after one attack passes off it was often followed by another of a milder type. In one case a gentleman was obliged to wear cloth shoes for upward of eight months, and with other patients the system has been so impregnated with the poison that blisters have re-appeared at intervals, not only on the feet, but on the hands, ears, etc., for more than three years. There was no doubt as the to cause and method of this blood-poisoning, for the blisters first came in stripes corresponding to the colored strips on the stockings, and the laundresses complained of the irritation and inflamed condition of their hands after washing these poisoned articles. A Scotch lady who suffered from a like cause brought a successful suit against the firm which supplied her with the goods, and it was formally announced by them that henceforth the use of arsenic in the composition of the dyes would be discontinued. Although having no wish to appear as “alarmists,” yet it is evident that the occasion is one calling for watchful care on the part of both purchases and manufacturer. As we have suggested above, these facts are worthy of special consideration at present. For, where the fashion of wearing striped stockings will, without doubt, soon be confined to gentlemen alone, yet the use by them of questionable colors may result in the disastrous effects above described. Iowa State Reporter [Waterloo, IA] 20 October 1875: p. 6
It was sometimes difficult to find a statute under which to charge sellers of poisoned stockings.
Dr. Edson, of New York, says the Philadelphia Ledger, has discovered an ingenious method of bringing to account in court the dealers in stockings poisoned by dye-stuff. There is no law, it appears, directly applying to such cases, so the Health Officer proposes to have the dealers charged with selling poisons without a label. It is a very “taking” scheme, but would hardly hold if a Philadelphia lawyer should be engaged for the defense. Brownstown [IN] Banner 17 December 1885: p. 2
I have seen cases from as far afield as Japan and France. As far as I have discovered, none of the victims are reported to have died although many were brought to the point of death (at least according to the papers), like this child.
A Startling Case–Serious Sickness of a Four-Year-Old Boy
From the Utica Observer, march 4.
Yesterday morning an Observer reporter was informed that the four-year-old boy of a widow lady living in the Third ward was seriously ill and that the cause of the little fellow’s sickness was thought to be his poisoned stockings. It was ascertained that the case was in charge of Dr. Charles B. Tefft, and to him the reporter applied for information. He was told that the cause of the boy’s sickness probably lay in the fact that his stockings were died [sic] brown by the use of picric acid, but that experiments to be made in the evening would determine that point. The case was this:
Last Sunday the little fellow put on a pair of brown woolen stockings. Yesterday morning he was taken very ill. He commenced retching and vomiting and a yellowish hue commenced spreading all over his body. When Dr. Tefft was called the little fellow was suffering great pain. Dr. Tefft confesses that after an examination he was unable to see why the boy should be sick until his eye fell on the boy’s brown stockings, when the thought flashed over him that the newspapers were probably right, and that there was poison in them. He had them removed at once, and fond that the boy’s legs were fairly yellow. He then had the mother test the stockings, and she declared that they were very bitter. (!!!) The mystery of the poor little fellow’s illness was explained.
Dr. Tefft on reading upon the subject of picric acid, found that it would produce the same symptoms as those exhibited by the boy. This morning the stockings were put to a thorough test. A piece was cut from one of them and placed in hot water for a moment. Then placing it between the teeth a very bitter taste was perceptible, so bitter that it irritated the end of the tongue. The pair of stockings were then placed in the water. On wringing them the water immediately became discolored, assuming a yellowish tinge which could not be mistaken. There is no doubt that the picric acid in the matter used to color the stockings produced the boy’s sickness. At one time the little fellow was very near death, but he is now recovered. His yesterday’s attack was his first serious illness, but it is noted that during the time he has worn the stockings he has been afflicted with diarrhea, headache, and stomachache.
The stockings were not a cheap pair. They were as nicely made and of as nice a shade as any. But their effects are dangerous. This picric acid is not used alone for purely brown stockings. It is also used to dye striped hose in which that color appears. But all brown stockings are not poisoned. Some of them are manufactured by honest dealers who disdain to make use of picric acid on account of its cheapness, because they know its deadly effects. There is one sure test to apply to detect its presence. Stockings dyed with it, placed between the teeth and against the tongue, impart a bitter taste, which cannot be mistaken. Ladies or others about to purchase brown stockings would do well to apply this test before buying. Wheeling [WV] Register 13 March 1876: p 3
The image of ladies licking stockings before purchase is a diverting one. A brief scan of internet sources reveals that the primary use for the fatal picric acid is in munitions and explosives. I will leave the question of exploding clothing for another post.