Friday, May 2, 2014

Green Shutters and the Death of Napoleon?

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Ever notice how shutters are often painted green? Well, you're not seeing things. Green shutters are everywhere, and they have a rich historical tradition associated with them that traces their existence to the death of Napoleon (that's right, Napoleon), and 18th century Europe.

Historic homes like this one built in 1850 often
used green paint on the shutters to repel pests.
As trade expanded in the 18th century so did our knowledge of chemistry. Colorants from nature were blended with modern science and the color wheel grew to include colors like Prussian Blue as early as 1704. In 1775, Carl Wilhelm Scheele developed Scheele's green, an emerald green, which used copper arsenite. Again, you're not seeing things, Scheele's green was actually made of compounds containing arsenic, and it was used in paints, papers, fabrics, and wallpaper across Europe.
Napoleon's beloved, arsenic-laced wallpaper.
Napoleon loved Scheele's green! In 1808 a British wallpaper maker installed decorative green and brown, star-patterned wallpaper inside Napoleon's bedroom at his Longwood estate during his exile to St. Helena. His fondness for green however would be his undoing. The humid and moist climate of St. Helena created an eternal dampness in the air which created an arsenic-laced vapor that emitted from his beloved green wallpaper and contributed to his death in 1821! In 1980, suspicions of Napoleon's death by green wallpaper was corroborated when a hair sample detected arsenic poisoning.

Green dresses were all of the rage in this
image from La Mode in 1848. 
But Napoleon's death didn't stop the fashion craze for green. Although Scheele's green and later Paris green (a cheap knock-off color) were documented poisonous in 1822 (interesting timing on that conclusion), it continued to be used in many forms.

And this is where the shutters come in! Knowing that green paints contained toxins homeowners, business owners, and farmers alike painted their shutters and other wood architectural elements green to repel and even kill insects, pests, and small animals that would cause damage to the wood. And as Scheele's green weathered, it darkened to a black color. Today, you will discover that green is the most popular color choice for shutters seconded only by the color black. Why? Because the color green started as a fad, killed Napoleon, became a pest repellent, and has now become an American architectural tradition.

Haab's Restaurant in Ypsilanti, Michigan has been
keeping their shutters green since 1934.

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