Jennifer Tucker

Dangerous Exposures: Work and Waste in Victorian Photography & the Chemical Trades

This paper discusses how the alkali industry transformed two towns in northwestern England and considers some of the complexities of environmental systems and stories that are still embedded in the landscape – long after many of the physical traces of the Victorian chemical industry have long since disappeared.  

The towns of Widnes and St. Helens, where many of the world’s first chemical factories and towns were created in open farmland during the nineteenth century, are especially important places to study historical responses to industrial pollution and its associated costs. Like modern-day alchemists, chemical industrialists transformed the rural landscape, their factories churning out base elements that were transformed into textile dyes, soap, and glass: materials that seemingly defined the Victorian era. Yet while many contemporary observers praised the alkali industry for providing materials that facilitated modern activities, others saw a different side to the new chemical industry. Not only did the process of generating salt cake from salt and sulfuric acid release hydrochloric acid gas into the atmosphere, it also produced an insoluble, smelly solid waste that became piled in heaps and spread on fields near the soda works. The chemical trade harmed not only the local air, water, and land, however, it also injured people, especially chemical workers. 

Drawing on newly recovered archival sources in northwest England this paper explores the nature and significance of the Victorian alkali industry in addressing a range of questions in environmental history, history and theory of photography, law, and public health.  Photography emerged in the nineteenth-century as both a new mode of documenting chemical pollution and a technological process that was itself the product of a chemical industry that produced chemical waste and photographic pollution. The paper offers new evidence of the importance of visual imagery (particularly news illustrations, photographs and lantern slides) in raising public awareness about the potential dangers of alkali waste products for local environments and chemical workers. It suggests that an understanding of the language of visual imagery of alkali industry is useful for understanding the later transformations of public environmental law and policy in the region.

Jennifer Tucker

 Jennifer Tucker is a historian of science and technology at Wesleyan University specializing in the study of photography, visual culture and law. The author of Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science(2005), she has published several articles and edited several works including, most recently, A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment (Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2019) . She currently is finishing a Photography and Law Reader and a book on photography and Victorian facial likeness.