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Episode 1.3: A Pigment of Your Exhumation (Script)

Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build. In 1986, Ferne Snyder was in a bit of a tizzy. An environmental consulting firm, called Biometric Services, had paid a visit to her home in Allentown Pennsylvania, with a rather bizarre objective. They were going to test her dinnerware for radioactivity using a Geiger counter. Now, if you’ve ever seen a movie that involves atomic energy or nuclear fallout, then you’ve seen a Geiger counter, or at least heard the distinctive clicking sound it makes when it detects radiation. Well at that very moment, poor Ferne was hearing it, too, right there in her dining room, as the consultant waved the device over her prized, red, Fiestaware bowl. The firm found that her bowl was emitting about 4 millirem of radioactivity per hour. The average dose of radiation received by people living in the United States is just 620 millirem per year, and she had been cherishing her Fiestaware for about 40 years. “I don’t know what I’m going to do at this point,” Ferne mused, unable to fully grasp the nearly one and a half million millirem of radiation her little red bowl had emitted into her home since she unwrapped it all those decades ago. But how is this possible? What was so special about Ferne Snyder’s red bowl that made it so incredibly dangerous? Turns out, nothing really. Since The Homer Laughlin China Company had introduced Fiestaware in 1936, people had been crazy about the pieces, the Art Deco Design, the affordability, and most of all, the brilliant hues in which is was available. An early company brochure had boasted: "COLOR! that's the trend today..." going on to say, "It gives the hostess the opportunity to create her own table effects....... Plates of one color, Cream Soups of another, contrasting Cups and Saucers....it's FUN to set a table with Fiesta!" As it turns out, what made Fiestaware so much fun, was also what made it so toxic. Those amazing colors. At the time, Red, yellow, and orange glazes in pottery were made with a pigment called Uranium Dioxide. This highly radioactive powder was also found in the heart of nuclear reactors and some weapons, serving as a fuel for the immensely powerful reactions occurring within. Fiestaware, with its bold, solid colors, was laden with the radioactive glaze in ways that most other multicolored ceramic products were not, even though just about every company used the same stuff to make their pieces. In 1943, the government restricted all usage of Uranium for the war effort, and Laughlin, unable to produce half of its required colors, discontinued Fiestaware until the restrictions were lifted in the 50s, when depleted uranium was used instead of the original formulation. Finally, in 1972 the company fully stopped using Uranium in any of its products, the Cold-War Era public having become much more educated as to its nature. ------------- 1816, the Island of St. Helena, in a deep copper bathtub, Napoleon soaks away his troubles. He is in exile, surrounded by false friends and potential assassins, and feeling the pains of an unknown malady eating away at his stomach. He is a defeated man, forced to live on the coldest, wettest portion of this tiny bit of land in the South Atlantic, in an estate turned prison, called Longwood House. The house itself was well below Napoleon’s standards. The walls were rife with cobwebs and mold, vermin scurried beneath the floorboards, and the whole place was as damp and dark as a tomb. His staff, one of the luxuries afforded to him given his status, did their best to make this place a suitable home for their master. They hung draperies and wallpapered over the blemishes, with the finest patterns of green and gold, the colors of his lost Empire to which he so desperately wished to return. Between he and the walls, he might even whisper a promise to rule once more beside his family, who he left behind in France. The walls, however, had other plans.

The color used in Napoleon’s wallpaper was called Sheele’s Green, and it contained a pigment called Copper Arsenite, a highly toxic, inorganic compound. Discovered by a Swedish chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the pigment, and its chemical cousin, Paris Green, were used in all sorts of everyday objects. Without knowing the danger, manufacturers used this verdent powder in wallpaper, drapes, clothing, candles, newspapers, dyes, and even children’s toys. It was everywhere. As time went by, people started getting suspicious. Aristocrats and theater performers who wore a lot of green tended to die young. Children wasted away in their bright green rooms. Newspaper printers often succumbed to its fumes. The companies that manufactured the pigment altered the recipe a little, changed the labels a lot, and kept right on selling their vibrant poison.

It wasn’t until an Italian medical scientist, Bartolomeo Gosio, published his research on what he called “Gosio gas” in 1893, that anyone fully knew the truth behind their killer decor. Spurred by a rash of mysterious and sudden infant deaths in the 1830s, Gosio surmised that the epidemic was brought on by environmental factors. He tested the various types of molds found throughout the homes, including in the wallpaper. Knowing that four of every five wallpapers were colored with arsenic, he tested those pigments by combining them with mashed potatoes, and using them to grow a culture of the same mold species. In 1891, the cause of the infant deaths, and likely many other mysterious illnesses, became very clear to Bartolomeo. The molds were actually metabolising the arsenic oxide and producing highly toxic fumes, which he named “Gosio gas,” otherwise known as trimethylarsine. In his experiments, mice exposed to the mold cultures died within minutes. 70 years prior to this discovery, in a damp room at Longwood House, in a bed draped in a brilliant green canopy, Napoleon has drawn his last breath. On may 5th, the former Emperor died of a stomach ulcer, later discovered to be cancerous. But what about the arsenic gas? The lavishly toxic decor so irresponsibly slung over every corner of his every waking moment?

Well, to be honest, no one is really sure. Some people are sure, but no one has proven themselves irrefutably correct. The toxicity of trimethylarsine is highly disputed, experiments and research subsequent to Gosio’s work have both confirmed and debunked his results. Napoleon definitely died due to the ulcer, but his body, which was not embalmed, was moved 19 years after his burial back to his homeland of France. It was noted, several times, that he was remarkably well preserved for a man who’d been dead for nearly two decades. Not only that, but preserved locks of Napoleon’s hair contained detectable levels of arsenic. But again, the mystery prevails. Napoleon was buried in a sealed metal coffin, in an airtight underground vault, covered with cement to maintain both its own impressive integrity and that of his body. The arsenic in his hair could have easily come from any number of sources. At the time, the poison was used as a hair tonic, it was found in fish surrounding St Helena, it was often prescribed by doctors or even taken recreationally. Yes, people back then did arsenic for funsies. Was the ulcer helped along by toxic fumes, leaching into the air around Napoleon? There is strong evidence to consider this probability. Those living with him noted, in their own correspondence, they were suffering from widespread physical distress, including stomach pains and swollen extremities. Some even died, including a child and the Emperor’s personal butler. The death of Napoleon, the rash of mysterious and fatal illness across the 19th century, even Gosio’s dead mice paint a pretty grim portrait of life at the time. The manufacturing industry showed no desire to discontinue use of arsenic based pigments until a much less toxic formulation was popularized at the turn of the century. Should they have just stopped or gone back to the older, duller greens of the olden days? Possibly. But maybe they thought people preferred a shorter, more vibrant life. Maybe they were right. Even after it’s well documented lethality, artists, especially those in the Impressionist and Post Impressionist movements, favored Paris Green, another arsenite color. Gauguin, Cezanne, and Van Gogh all utilized the pigment even as it had gone from being used mostly in wallpaper, to being sprayed as an insecticide and dumped in the sewers of Paris to kill rats. Incidentally, this is where the name “Paris Green” comes from. The color’s formal name is Emerald Green.

Historically, the art world has had a results-first attitude when it comes to pigments. A quick look in any artist’s paint collection and you’ll discover labels that read “White Lead,” “Cadmium Red,” and “Barium Yellow.” It seems that exposing oneself to multiple, lethal chemical compounds over and over is well worth the pursuit of breathtaking art, at least to those engaged in said pursuit. And, really, isn’t that their choice? Unlike when manufacturers pump out poison curtains or radioactive mugs, these artists are technically only endangering themselves. The painters aren’t violating any widespread moral code in order to achieve their aspirations… except in the case of Mummy Brown.

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On a Sunday afternoon, in Victorian London, Edward Burne Jones was hosting lunch for his friend, and fellow painter, Lawrence Alma Tadema and their families. His wife, Georgiana, recounted in her biography of her late husband, that the peculiar afternoon, “was remembered by us all as the day of the funeral of a tube of mummy-paint. We were sitting together after lunch ..., the men talking about different colours that they used, when Mr.Tadema startled us by saying he had lately been invited to go and see a mummy that was in his colourman's workshop before it was ground down into paint. Edward scouted the idea of the pigment having anything to do with a mummy — said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it”

A real, dead person, pulverized and used for pigment in a tube of paint. Jones’ reaction was pretty on point for someone who had just discovered he had been brushing the preserved remains of ancient Egyptians on his canvases, but how was this even possible? More importantly why was this even a thing in the first place?

The reasoning behind using mummies for anything, other than chasing would be graverobbers around in cheesy action/adventure movies, was mostly based on a series of incorrect assumptions. Historians in the Middle Ages attributed the darkened color of the mummies themselves to the Egyptians using a substance called “bitumen” in the embalming process. This falsity was based in a belief in the medicinal properties of the substance by the ancient Greeks, who prescribed it for a wide variety of ailments, from toothaches to dysentery. Today, we use it to pave roads, but we call it asphalt. The ancient Persians called it “mum” or “mumiya,” which gave us the term, “mummy.”

There was pitch or tar in some mummies, but not the petroleum-based bitumen as was believed. It was usually wood pitch and a build up of other waxes and resins that had blackened with age. This misconception was of no consequence to the graverobbers, confidence men, importers, apothecaries, dockworkers, doctors, colormen, artists, and anyone else who benefitted from what had become known as the Mummy Trade.

By the 1500s, this grave business had become such a problem that legal restrictions on exporting the corpses were put in place by Egypt, and were promptly ignored. There was just too much profit to be had by raiding the ancient tombs, stealing the bodies, shipping them to Europe, and selling them off in bits and pieces, or just grinding them whole. According to some of the greatest minds of the 16th century, there was almost nothing that could not be cured by a dose of Mummia, as the horrifying substance had come to be known.

After a while, there just wasn’t enough supply to meet the incredible demand. Despite the Egyptians having mummified well into the tens of millions of it’s dead, it is presumed one could only dig so fast. So suppliers of mummia and seekers of fortune sought alternative sources.

Some dealers actually treated the corpses of the recently dead, mostly condemned criminals and slaves, with bitumen and left them in the sun in order to create a facsimile of an ancient mummy. The irony being that these ghastly forgeries were likely the only ones to contain any actual bitumen, one of the main reasons for the trade to exist in the first place. The treated flesh of camels was also commonly sold as authentic mummy.

The fad slowly faded over time. Many of the graverobbers during the trade had remarked how crazy it was that European Christians, who they saw as being quite dainty and delicate, would so willingly consume the flesh of the dead. Many scientists and physicians shared their disgust and were joined in time by more and more voices of dissent. The critics, combined with medical advances, and widespread corruption in the mummy trade, chipped away at the popular belief in the curative properties of mummia.

The art world, however, carried on making pigment out of mummies. The paint itself was able to be found on store shelves up until the 1930s, with a managing director for Roberson’s, a famous London color making firm, lamenting the company finally running out of mummies to grind up in 1964.

Going back again to the scene in Edward Burne-Jones’ yard, it’s easy to see an artist, a scientist, a captain of industry getting caught up in the current of a new trend. The cresting wave of a popular fad is not a place from which most people stop and get all insightful. And it’s really easy to look back from our place in history and clutch our pearls.

But now, in that patch of grass in London, on a Sunday afternoon, we can see a man doing what he believes is right. Despite his friend’s apparent glee at getting to see a corpse get mashed into paint, he sets an example for those in attendance of his strange, tiny funeral, his best attempt to do right by someone he never knew, but could relate to. His family, among which was a young Rudyard Kipling, took note. The future author, decades later detailing the experience and how it stuck with him as follows:

“He descended in broad daylight with a tube of ‘Mummy Brown’ in his hand, saying that he had discovered it was made of dead Pharaohs and we must bury it accordingly. So we all went out and helped – according to the rites of Mizraim and Memphis, I hope – and to this day I could drive a spade within a foot of where that tube lies”

Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.

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