Another question I’d love to ask someone from 1905: did apples taste different when coated in rat poison?

The little press release excerpted below reveals that it was common practice in that era to apply “Paris Green” – an arsenic compound so named because it was used to kill Paris sewer rats – to apples and other tree fruit because it was an effective insecticide against the Codling (or Codlin) moth. Despite also being known as an effective way to kill people, the Victorians loved its bright emerald color and used it in everything from soap to paint on toys to candy. It was most infamously used in wallpaper, where it proved to be particularly deadly if the walls became damp or moldy; one estimate in the British medical journal Lancet found that an average-sized living room with Paris Green wallpaper had enough arsenic to potentially kill a hundred people.

Paris Green had other problems – until the National Insecticide Law of 1910 finally set quality standards, farmers were urged to test their supply for impurities – yet it continued to be commonly used through the early 20th century (my grandfather had an old box of the stuff that I played with, mixing it up as paint). Many did switch to lead arsenate as the scientist below recommended, but it was discovered in 1919 that none of these arsenic compounds could be completely washed off the fruit using the technology of the day.

Despite that piddling problem, arsenics continued to be used on apples, plums, and other trees until DDT became available after WWII. Worse, all those years of spraying the trees with lead and Paris Green still contaminates orchard topsoil and ground water.

I assume in 1905 they believed that the poison either completely washed off, or was safely removed by peeling away the skin. But I wonder if this reveals a whole new angle on the tradition of schoolkids bringing teacher a nice, juicy apple.

Does Not Really Reach the Codling Moth Evil

BERKELEY, April 27 — Paris green is not the great codling moth destroyer that it has heretofore been believed to be. This is the discovery just announced by the entomologists of the University of California. Instead of Paris green, which has so long been the stand-by of the apple growers, William W. Volck, the college experimenter recommends the use of arsenate of lead as an insecticide, the great superiority of which over Paris green lies in the fact that it is neutral in its effect on vegetation.


– Santa Rosa Republican, April 27, 1905

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *