In 1868, a spate of deaths were blamed on… the wearing coloured socks.
I am recovering from surgery, and was only able to bend a leg with some considerable pain, so for two weeks I have been sockless, and am remembered this peculiar tale.
It’s October 1868, and an article appears in a number of newspapers warning of the dangers of “Poisoned Hosiery”.
Mr Webber, a medical man made a statement at the London Guildhall warning that the dyes used in colouring socks contained a poisonous element, which he claimed has produced irritating sores on the feet of several of his patients. One patient had feet that we so swollen as to have his boots cut off as they couldn’t be removed conventionally.
Another youth was cited, based in Oxford who complained of sores and ulcers on his feet.
He added that having approached one manufacturer of socks, the immediately cancelled an order for an “enormous quantity” of bright coloured socks.
Mr Webber admitted that he didn’t know what the poison was, but was certain that only brightly coloured socks were affected.
His presentation got little sympathy from Alderman Dakin, the magistrate hearing the complaint, noting that he himself wore brightly coloured socks without complaint.
Was there a good reason to be afraid of mauve and magenta hosiery he asked?
Victorians were, rightly, worried, as the adulteration of food and drink with additives to boost the sellers profits was a widespread problem, with trading standards and food safety a distant dream.
It had after all also been just a few years since the green wallpaper scare, where it was found that bright green wallpapers were being made with paints and dyes topped up with arsenic.
So it seemed not impossible to Victorians that socks could be deadly.
One example, cited in a report the following year of a patient in May 1868 who had presented himself to a doctor being afflicted with “acute and painful vascular eruptions” around his legs. He had taken to wearing socks of a bright red colour which were much in fashion at the time.
A number of other men reportedly suffered sores from repeated wearing of bright socks, such as the report from Coventry of a man wearing socks of the “Marquis of Hastings” colour, who suffered increasingly painful feet.
Experiments were carried out
The French physician Dr Tardieu commissioned Mons. Roussin, a well-known chemist, to look into the matter. They took socks from the afflicted and extracted the dyes by boiling them in alcohol and found… poisons.
Really quite serious poisons.
Animal experiments using just a diluted amount of the extracted dyes was enough to kill small animals, including a dog.
This was however not enough to stop the use of poisons in dyes for socks.
Even in 1891, there were reports of people being affected by sores and discomforts that could be traced to the wearing of bright coloured stockings. The Board of Health recommended the avoidance of wearing apparel coloured with dyes obtained from metallic preparations.
The Daily Telegraph recommended that men should stick to plain white lambs-wool socks, not just for heath reasons, but mainly because the newspaper couldn’t see the point of “so gaily decking the extremities”.
Despite that, the use of arsenic in clothing dyes continued.
In 1901, a correspondent wrote to the Islington Gazette warning against the use of arsenic in black stockings dye, and in 1921 a French dancer sued a shop for selling her silk stockings coloured with poisonous dyes.
Eventually, the use of toxins as dyes faded, less due to diligent governments banning them, than that cheaper and more durable synthetic dyes were invented which were preferred by clothing manufacturers.
If you’re out for a long walk and you complain about aching feet, just think how much worse it could be if you had worn bright coloured socks as well.
Dundee Courier – Friday 02 October 1868
Worcester Journal – Saturday 10 October 1868
Belgravia: A London Magazine, April 1869
Bury Times – Saturday 08 May 1869 (reprinting the St James Magazine)
Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 19 August 1871
Portsmouth Evening News – Saturday 28 March 1891
Islington Gazette – Friday 10 May 1901