Due to erm, unforeseen circumstances, I cannot access certain programs on my computer, including my photo editing software, so no pictures today. Instead I’m sharing some of the interesting bits and bobs I’ve found so far on leaded silk.
You think lead paint in children’s toys is bad? A hundred years ago we were wearing lead right on our skin. Since the effects of lead poisoning are cumulative, people didn’t always notice it. I found this article particularly amusing and disturbing at the same time:
Miss P. Belle Kessinger of Pennsylvania State College pulled a rat out of a warm, leaded-silk sack, noted that it had died of lead poisoning, and proceeded to Manhattan. There last week she told the American Home Economics Association that leaded silk garments seem to her potentially poisonous. Her report alarmed silk manufacturers who during the past decade have sold more than 100,000,000 yards of leaded silk without a single report of anyone’s being poisoned by their goods. Miss Kessinger’s report also embarrassed Professor Lawrence Turner Fairhall, Harvard chemist, who only two years ago said: “No absorption of lead occurs even under extreme conditions as a result of wearing this material in direct contact with the skin.”
Full article available via this link: TIME Magazine, July 9, 1934
The Occupational Diseases by William Gilman Thompson (c. 1914) lists many occupations in which lead is used and the effects on the people involved in them. For example on page 234: “In Vienna, in 1906, several cases of plumbism [lead poisoning] occurred in women and girls who made fringe of silk which had been weighted with lead acetate.” On page 215 we find that seamstresses who are in the habit of biting off their threads are prone to lead poisoning as well. Makes you think, doesn’t it? This text is readable online, so you might find it an interesting, if somewhat unpleasant, diversion.
If lead poisoning is so nasty, why was lead even used in silk production? It makes sense when you think that at one time, silk was sold by weight. To make it heavier and therefore increase its resale value, lead was added to the fibers. Another unfortunate consequence of this we now know is that it makes the fibers less supple and more brittle, causing them to deteriorate much faster than they would naturally. Silk is generally recognized as having a 100 year lifespan (give or take, of course), but leaded silk becomes as delicate as tissue paper long before that. A silk day dress I own from the 1890’s has a heavy, luxuriously thick velvet skirt and a delicate, flimsy bodice made from leaded silk that falls apart at the slightest touch. The skirt may yet be recycled, but the bodice will never be of much use except for pattern and design research.
More to come as I dig it up. Really, the more I find on this subject, the more fascinated I am by the current furor over the whole Chinese lead paint in toys scandal. We seem to be acting as if this was something new…