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New Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home

Tue Dec 10, 9-10pm, BBC4

Suzannah Lipscomb is one of a growing number of female historians challenging history’s crusty reputation and making it acceptable to get excited about the past. ‘New Hidden Killers’ may be slightly sensationalist, but it’s also thoroughly compelling. Such was the Victorian enthusiasm for innovation, science and a bargain, it seems they were willing to use products that were dangerous and often lethal.

If the hazardous additions to food and drink didn’t maim or kill – sour milk made alkaline by boracic acid, lead used to colour mustard, alum in bread – navigating steep, uneven stairs in big skirts might. To say nothing of the mangle. Or the exploding toilets. Then there was the great fly scare of the 1890s (yes, really), which not only resulted in the evolution of those great insect preventatives – net curtains – but flooded the home with all sorts of poisons that homemakers could easily mistake for flour, sugar and the like.

Most ridiculous has to be celluloid, a hugely versatile precursor to plastic that the Victorians used at every opportunity – in spite of its alarming flammability. Gruesome and fascinating.