During the 1800’s, magazines targeted to “housewives” disseminated as much kitchen wisdom and household tips as we get today. Even early cookbooks included as many household tips and they did recipes. Curiously, one common piece of advise was how to detect lead in water, which could be found in publications during the late 1800’s. Why is this curious? Because it is commonly thought that the toxicity of lead is a modern discovery!
The idea that we only recently discovered the toxicity of lead is a myth. In fact, the toxicity of lead was recognized as early as 2000 BCE.
Charles Dickens described the terrible effects of lead poisoning in an essay called “Star of the East,” in which he described the poisoning as seen in women who worked in London’s white lead mills. As well, Benjamin Franklin, in 1763, wrote about the “dry gripes” and “dangles” (dropping of the wrist) of tinkers (tin workers), painters, and typesetters, all of which were exposed to large amounts of lead. Fearing lead poisoning in our children, usually from lead paint, may seem like a modern concerned, but childhood lead poisoning was known as far back as 1892.1
Franklin’s dry gripes were a way of describing colicky pain, which was an early manifestation of lead poisoning, and it described sudden and intense bouts of abdominal cramping. Such “colicky pain” was a frequent complaint of those exposed to lead.
The advice given to detect lead in your household water may have been motivated by other concerns that lead toxicity, but it is clear that lead was known to be dangerous even in those early days. The question is whether these tips worked! Here is a copy of one such passage:
How to Detect Lead in Water
Place two perfectly bright and clean knitting needles in a glass nearly full of the water to be tested, and add eight or ten drops of acetic acid, or a teaspoonful of vinegar. The needles should be carefully revolved occasionally. If lead be present, dark or black spots will soon appear upon the needles and in six or eight hours they will be covered with a grey coating, the depth of color of which will depend upon the amount of lead in the fluid. A magnifying glass may be used, if necessary. Where the amount of lead is exceedingly small, the deposit may not be immediately detected, but after standing for twenty-four hours it becomes yellow.
In the 1800’s, knitting needles were probably made mostly of bone, animal horn, or ivory, which would turn yellow all on its own, over time. Given that most water was well-water or collected rain-water, if not water from streams or rivers, in those days, I would surmise that most any water would turn a knitting needle yellow if the needle were left in it long enough. However, leaden vessels were often used to collect or store water, and lead pipes were used to deliver even purified water in industry.
Whether or not this household test worked, there were much more accurate and sensitive tests available to check for the presence of lead in water. You can read more about the history of lead poisoning in Christian Warren’s excellent book, Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning.