Caveat Emptor

Some time ago (over a decade – shriek!) I worked for a lovely firm of auctioneers in a local town known for its glass industry. For the first time ever, I came across uranium glass.

At first I thought it was a joke name but no, it really does contain uranium. It’s added to the glass before blowing for colouration and it glows like a clubber at God’s Kitchen under UV light. Popular in the 1920s, it eventually fell out of favour when access to uranium was restricted after WWII and the Cold War (you don’t say?!).

High on life

I had my birthday whilst at that auction house. My colleagues had consigned a couple of slender glass hands for holding rings made out of uranium glass and they surrounded my birthday cake with them and some other pieces of uranium glass before shutting off the lights and whacking on the UV. Whoop whoop! Happy nuclear birthday!

Raise your vases to the ceiling!

Whilst you can’t catch uranium off a vase (unless perhaps Vladimir wills it so), I felt slightly unsettled about the ingredients to what are essentially beautiful yet dangerous objects.

I still ate the cake.

Deadly ingredients are banned now (although there’s still a bit of uranium glass being produced these days – brave artists!) thanks to all that (life-saving) red-tape produced by UK and Brussels, although it’s instructive to think about all the times that hasn’t been the case. Polyester production used to mean factory workers dealing with chemicals dipped in boiling acids and then spun into molten filaments for making into cloth. You can imagine the work place injuries there, well into the 20th century.

Matches in the 19th century were another potential killer. They used white phosphorus to make the flammable heads which slowly ate away at the workers’ faces, (:-@) causing a terrible condition called Phossy Jaw that meant stinking open wounds and a glow-in-the-dark skull…

phossy jaw
The jawbone of a Phossy Jaw sufferer

I follow a really interesting historian called Lora Writes History. Recently she highlighted an aspect of Victorian fashion that was literally lethal.

For thousands of years the only dyes available to us were natural ones and the general rule was that the more vivid the colour, the more expensive the dye was to produce. Famously, Tyrian (or Imperial) Purple was reserved solely for the use of Roman Emperors and the very upper echelons of the elite. That particular purple could only be produced by crunching up tens of thousands of tiny snails and removing an even tinier gland from them that had to sit and toast in the sun for some considerable time before it gave up its dye. The sheer effort involved meant it was vastly expensive.


As the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century advanced, scientific experiments with chemicals produced a new range of colours. Purple was now much easier to achieve than mass snail homicide. The first synthetic purple was produced in 1856 by teenager William Henry Perkin who was trying to produce quinine. It was quite the side-effect to have created possibly the most widely used colour of the latter 19thC. It was named, at first, mauveine, and was popularised when Queen Victoria wore a dress of mauveine coloured silk a few years after its discovery.


Other colours were also highly prized, especially green. An attractive green, also known as copper arsenite, was invented by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775. Eventually known as Scheele’s Green, it was made from sodium carbonate, copper sulphate and arsenious oxide (aka rat poison). In 1814 two other Germans, Russ and Sattler, added verdigris to make Emerald Green (also known as Paris Green). Although it was extremely popular, it was extremely poisonous. Nevertheless, it was used in all sorts of things including clothes, children’s toys, sweets and even wallpaper. It is suspected that Napoleon died from the toxic green wallpaper used in his house of exile on St Helena.

poisonous dress

This dress was made with arsenic green dye and it would have made the wearer ill, especially where it touched the skin. The poor souls engaged in working with the dye would have been even more ill, fatally so.

Lora writes “In 1861, Matilda Scheurer, a 19 yr-old artificial flower maker, died from accidental arsenic poisoning. It was her job to dust the leaves of the flowers with the toxic green powder. Her death was described in the press in grisly detail: she vomited green water, the whites of her eyes turned green, she convulsed and foamed at the mouth. An autopsy revealed her fingers had turned green…and the poison had reached her stomach, lungs and liver. In her final hours she’d told her doctor that everything she looked at was green.”

When the recipe for Emerald Green was published in 1822 and everyone realised it was lethal, manufacturers went to great lengths to rename the ingredients or to dilute them with other ingredients – but not to remove them altogether. And the public went on buying items impregnated with these greens despite knowing that they were highly dangerous. Synthetic greens were eventually developed that weaned people away from using Scheele’s or Emerald Green but it’s likely that they would have kept on selling and buying them anyway unless legislation stepped in to shut down production and sales.

There is a long history of the authorities attempting to regulate the things that we buy. Largely, it was in order to produce standards that could be trusted and in order to fine malefactors (mainly because people can’t be trusted not to do it by themselves). There’s always someone who will add Plaster of Paris to bread rather than buy more flour.


In Britain from the Middle Ages onwards, there was a special court called the Pie Powder Court (or Pied Poudre – “dusty feet”) that sat in times of public markets or fairs. According to Duhaime’s Law Dictionarythey had exclusive jurisdiction over disputes between merchants and consumers and any other dispute arising as a result of the market or fair and on fair grounds. Namely, they could fine or otherwise punish thieves and/or anyone selling short measures of anything, contaminated meat or substandard goods. Today there are still lengths of metal embedded in the walls of old market halls that measured out the official width of an ell or a yard of cloth (though I’ll be b*ggered if I can find a picture of one on the internet so you’ll have to take my word for it!).


As we’ve seen with fabrics, producers were not above creating a product that looked pretty but could kill, but the same went for food. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Thomas Wakley and Arthur Hill Hassall (a surgeon MP and a physician) conducted a series of experiments on food they bought in a local marketplace that something was done about odd ingredients consumed by the unsuspecting public. Their analysis showed that far more food was adulterated than had previously been suspected and that many of the foods were poisonous. Pressure mounted on the government after they published their work and it eventually led to The Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act in 1860. Later developments and revisions followed but, over time, our standards rose and those who had been made ill by food or drink they’d purchased could have some redress in law.

There are still those who try to game the system (horsemeat in burgers anyone?) but by and large it seems to work and we’re well protected by our standards agencies. They protect us from the obvious no-nos to the less obvious – I recently learnt that vanilla essence in its concentrated liquid form is both highly flammable and incredibly noxious to human health. Who knew?

Sometimes things slip through the net, though, without anyone meaning to cause harm. And these things can pop up where you least expect them…

still love you Jarv

Back in the 90s when charity shopping became cool, only the outriders were truly into ‘vintage’. For my part, I could only see a sea of greige slacks and floral blouses. I never found anything interesting. Also, I didn’t have the cool of Jarvis Cocker to carry it off, or the bones of Kate Moss, so I always looked like I had gone bin-diving more than rescuing cool old stuff.

Slowly “vintage” became less pejorative and more trendy by the late 90s so that even our local TopShop in Birmingham had a vintage section. It’s where I bought my favourite tan suede coat that I swanked around in at university during Freshers’ Week. It had to go to the Great Wardrobe in the Sky when one of our cats sneezed on it back at home. That brought me right back down to earth from those intellectual ivory towers.

“Vintage” as a term is now so pervasive that people selling any old tat on eBay can use it in order to lay claim to a wealth of assumed information about the item:  old, unusual, rare, cool, boho, trendy, pretty, individual, non-mainstream, etc. “Vintage” can be applied to stuff even from the 1990s – something that my mum warned me would happen at the height of my teenage years around 1995 and I just shrugged…

cath kidson

People have constructed whole lifestyles based around the 1940s utility ware or 1950s kitsch, or a sort of melange of all these things with a bit of Cath Kidson thrown in on top. It’s lovely, it’s pretty and there’s no doubt that it’s popular because it’s attractive and perhaps a bit retrogressive, so safe from the modern era and its demands.

But there are hidden dangers lurking in these items that might mean it’s not so safe after all.

Take WWII gas masks for example. What would you do if you were presented with one? You’d put it straight on your face and pretend to be either an elephant or some kind of Darth Vader, wouldn’t you (don’t you dare pretend you wouldn’t)? Unfortunately, millions of gas masks were made with blue and/or white asbestos which is extremely dangerous to inhale so you’d be taking a massive risk. Best to double bag it, put it in an airtight container and wash everything you’ve just used to touch it, launder your clothes and shower thoroughly. Then ask your local council how best to dispose of it.

Asbestos is a soft fibrous mineral that is mined from the ground. Ancient civilisations were aware of it (Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in cloths made of asbestos to preserve the bodies). Famously resistant to fire, it is also resistant to water, electricity and chemicals. It was also very malleable which made it useful when added to building materials. However, the little fibres it releases are a kind of silent white death, causing long term or even fatal lung problems to anyone exposed to them. It’s been banned in the UK for decades now and there are stringent guidelines for dealing with it in domestic or public settings – but some asbestos-laden items still manage to slip the net.

It’s not just gas masks though. Fancy gifting a funky mid-century toaster as a Christmas present? Don’t. Asbestos.

A vintage ironing board? Sorry, asbestos.

A gorgeous original 1950s hair dryer to go with your period dressing table? LOADS of asbestos.

ironing board

It’s actually illegal to sell them on eBay (or Etsy or anywhere else for that matter) but people aren’t aware that they contain asbestos, so they continue. It’s very unlikely they’re doing it on purpose but it’s a danger to your health all the same. A friend and fellow ex-curator Fran (take a look at her amazing Etsy site Wildings Vintage whilst you’re here, you won’t be sorry – and no, I’m not getting commission!) who makes a living from fabulous antique and charity shop finds made me aware of the problem. I have to say that, as a previous gas mask wearer (and elephant/Darth Vader impersonator) I’d never even considered that they could be dangerous. What else is lurking out there, luring in the unwary?

So, this Black Friday, Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware – and take care out there in the world’s marketplaces. You never know what you could be bringing home with you…

caveat emptor