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Ptomaine poisoning from tarnished copper pans!!??

ratgirlagogo Feb 9, 2012 02:39 PM

I just finished reading Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, her memoir of working as a kitchen maid in prewar England (it is one of the sources for Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey). Chapter 15 contains this interesting paragraph:

"Another pet hate was cleaning the copper saucepans. Every time they were used they got filthy. All the bright polish would be tarnished after every meal. They had to be cleaned with a horrible mixture of silver sand, salt, vinegar, and a little flour. You mixed all this into a paste and then rubbed it on with your bare hands. You couldn't put it on with rags because you couldn't get the pressure that way, you dug your hand into the tin where you had previously mixed it all up and you rubbed it on the copper outside. It was a foul job. Every morning I had to do it. Mind you they looked lovely when I'd done them, they used to hang all along the wall in the kitchen, right from the very tiniest little saucepan, which didn't hold more than a teacup full, to the most enormous one in which you could put three Christmas puddings side by side. And there was a big fish-kettle as well. I used to get so miserable sometimes that I used to wish that they'd all get ptomaine poisoning from them. I was always being told that if I didn't clean them properly they'd get ptomaine poisoning. If they had they might have changed their saucepans."

This would have been in the twenties or early thirties. This notion of ptomaine poisoning of all things to get from a copper pan is a new one to me - has anyone else ever encountered it?

  1. g
    GH1618 Feb 9, 2012 03:05 PM

    Ptomaine poisoning is bacterial. Was the author a medical doctor? If not, why would you expect her to be accurate on medical matters?

    1. m
      MelMM Feb 9, 2012 05:39 PM

      It used to be believed that ptomaine poisoning was caused by leftover particles of food that decayed. So it would follow that not cleaning a pan thoroughly would cause it. It is now understood that the sickness comes from bacterial contamination, but in the timeframe of the fiction you refer to, the reference to ptomaine poisoning makes sense.

      1. NE_Wombat Feb 9, 2012 05:56 PM

        Ptomaine is an antiquated term inserted into a fictional period piece. It's a 19th century theory revolving around the breakdown of proteins into small pieces - and that those small pieces were poisonous. In modern terms, Ptomaine can be used (inaccurately) to describe the smell or taste of protein broken down and "spoiled", usually through bacterial action.

        1. Chemicalkinetics Feb 9, 2012 06:38 PM

          Copper poisoning is not unfounded, which is why all modern copper cookware not bare. That being said, the poisoning has nothing to do with Ptomaine poisoning. They are either lined with tin or stainless steel or something. In the passage you wrote, the cookware are already lined with tin, so shouldn't be a huge problem. If anything, I see a deep cleaning like this can only wear the tin surface at a faster rate.

          1. k
            kagemusha49 Feb 9, 2012 07:12 PM

            Ptomaine poisoning is real and is typically contracted by consuming bad fish.

            3 Replies
            1. re: kagemusha49
              Zeldog Feb 9, 2012 07:29 PM

              Ptomaine poisoning is nothing more than an archaic term for food poisoning in general. It's fine if they use it in Downton Abbey, but it has no meaning in the 21st century. You can get food poisoning from salmonella, listeria, e coli, botulina, and other bacteria, and you can get sick from cooking on bare copper or lead (though that's not food poisoning), but there is no such thing as a ptomaine bacterium.

              "I was always being told that if I didn't clean them properly they'd get ptomaine poisoning." Get it? The food poisoning would come from poor cleaning, not the copper. A hundred years ago even the scullery maid understood how to avoid (or not) food poisoning.

              1. re: Zeldog
                kagemusha49 Feb 10, 2012 09:03 AM

                My bad - it is indeed an archaic generc term. Shows my age I guess. I have only ever heard its use in connection with fish.

              2. re: kagemusha49
                Chemicalkinetics Feb 9, 2012 07:32 PM

                No, I don't doubt there is food poisoning. I just want to clarify that there is no reason to believe copper cookware causes more food poisoning than other cookware. In fact, food poisoning is not related to cookware. Yes, there is copper poisoning, but it is not food poisoning.

              3. g
                GH1618 Feb 9, 2012 07:33 PM

                Here's a reference to ptomaine poisoning from the NIH website:


                1. kaleokahu Feb 9, 2012 09:26 PM

                  Hi, ratgirlagogo:

                  Not only is this hogwash, it's the rarest of hogwash--precisely the opposite is true. Copper is a powerful *anti*microbial material, recognized as a safety enhancement for millenia. See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimicrobial_properties_of_copper It is possibly the MOST powerful antimicrobial touch surface ever devised. See, http://www.antimicrobialcopper.com/us...

                  And BTW, not all copper cookware is--or need be--lined. Zambaglione, egg, confectionary and preserve pans are rarely ever lined. Lining reduces reactivity with acidic ingredients, but risk in cooking most anything in unlined is low for short cooking times.


                  7 Replies
                  1. re: kaleokahu
                    kagemusha49 Feb 10, 2012 09:02 AM

                    Pretty much all metals have some bactericidal action - it's one of the reasons that doorknobs are made of metal.

                    1. re: kagemusha49
                      kaleokahu Feb 10, 2012 09:19 AM

                      Hi, kagemusha:

                      Yes, but the subject was copper, and it looks like copper is the best metal for that property.


                      1. re: kaleokahu
                        ratgirlagogo Feb 11, 2012 12:14 PM

                        "Not only is this hogwash, it's the rarest of hogwash--precisely the opposite is true."

                        I only quoted the one paragraph, but she follows by saying that her replacement flatly refused to do this onerous task - and the house got rid of the copper pans! In terms of her personal story, she stresses this because she is giving an example of how later household workers were less afraid of losing their jobs, and therefore less likely to just blindly do what they were told, than workers of her generation had been. In terms of my question though, I'm more struck by the implication that the mistress also thought there was some specific kind of danger with copper pans as opposed to other kinds - that it wasn't just a case of making sure that the cookware was spotlessly clean, but that COPPER cookware was spotlessly clean.
                        So, agreeing that it's hogwash (for what it's worth, I think the former maid herself thought so also), is this a piece of hogwash you've heard before?

                        1. re: ratgirlagogo
                          kagemusha49 Feb 11, 2012 02:24 PM

                          The only thing I can think of is that several salts of copper are quite poisonous. A dirty copper pot could lead to something like copper sulphate or copper carbonate forming.

                          1. re: kagemusha49
                            ratgirlagogo Feb 11, 2012 06:51 PM

                            I'm not asking if you think this idea has any basis in reality. You've already said that you don't think it does. I don't either. I'm asking if you, or anyone else, has ever encountered this idea before as some kind of "everybody knows" old wive's tale. Like peacock feathers and opals being unlucky or cats smothering babies, for example, which were widely believed in the past, but hardly at all today.
                            By the way the book I am quoting above is not a work of fiction but (as I said) a memoir, i.e., a type of autobiography, i.e. a work of non-fiction. Margaret Langley Powell is not a character on Downton Abbey but was an actually existing real person who wrote a book about her real life that was, as I said, USED AS ONE OF THE SOURCES for the two fictional television series Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. (not directed at you kagemusha although I've answered here.)
                            I'm asking if anyone knows if this was a widely held (erroneous) idea in that time period - have you heard this from someone in your own family, read it in a book, etc.
                            Of course if you think it actually DOES have some basis in reality that is something else again.

                          2. re: ratgirlagogo
                            kaleokahu Feb 11, 2012 07:47 PM

                            No. My guess is that she was only compelled to polish the copper because only the copper needed polishing. But I am sure that if the mistress entertained and the copper was not spotlessly mirrored there would be judgment and retribution.

                            1. re: kaleokahu
                              Dave5440 Feb 11, 2012 10:29 PM

                              No doubt based on a "true story" when's the movie coming out? Can't wait.
                              This thread comes under ICBIRTS

                    2. g
                      gme994 Jul 27, 2012 10:11 AM

                      I was just saying to my son today that he shouldn't put his leftovers into the refridgerator with the spoon or spatula if it has metal in it because I was always told that the metal can react with certain ingredients in leftovers and make them turn bad faster. I remember my mother telling me this when I was younger and she must have said it more than once if I remember!! It caused Ptomaine poisoning - - I remember her specifically saying especially anything dairy (eggs & mayo). I had to add it here. It sure could have been an old wives tale but I remember also talking about salmonella at the same time and my mom said they were two different things.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: gme994
                        kaleokahu Jul 27, 2012 10:52 AM

                        Hi, gme994: "It caused Ptomaine poisoning..."

                        It must have caused the humors, ethers and spirits to rise up, too, because there is no such thing. The term dates back to the time before the discovery of bacteria, when all food poisoning was generally called 'ptomaine' (from Greek ptōma, "fall, fallen body, corpse").

                        Ironically, copper is powerfully *anti* microbial. See, again, http://www.antimicrobialcopper.com/us...


                        1. re: gme994
                          ratgirlagogo Jul 28, 2012 06:26 PM

                          Thank you gme994. You are one of the few people in this thread to actually answer the question that I asked, which was about the FOLKLORE regarding copper and ptomaine, as opposed to the science regarding copper and ptomaine. Sheesh.

                          1. re: ratgirlagogo
                            GH1618 Jul 28, 2012 07:14 PM

                            Yes, but kaleokahu correctly points out that the term is obsolete. That's why it is rarely encountered anymore. I've encountered the term, but it was so long ago that I've forgotten the context.

                            1. re: GH1618
                              ratgirlagogo Jul 28, 2012 07:58 PM

                              I was aware from my original post that the term is obsolete. I was after all referencing a memoir of the 1920's. My question was about what memories however vague any Chowhounds had of this very antique idea.

                              However I do thank you for stating straightforwardly that you've encountered the term but don't remember the context. That is also an answer to my original question.

                        2. t
                          texanfrench Jul 29, 2012 09:12 AM

                          I've been told that the green stuff that can appear on copper is copper acetate. It's not really poison, but it can cause stomach upset. However, in the olden days that green stuff was often mixed with an arsenic compound and used for rat poison (called "Paris Green"). It's easy to see how the myth that tarnished copper is poisonous. But plain old tarnished copper is brown, not green.

                          On the other hand, the copper polish described in the quote you gave is probably just the generic household metal polish. It's much easier to clean copper by using a stronger mixture--half a lemon dipped in salt, for example. Which is why you should not cook acidic foods in unlined copper--too much copper dissolves into the food, which can lead to an "overdose" which indeed can make you sick.

                          You can also dissolve other pure metals, like aluminum and iron, into acidic foods when you cook in pans made of these metals, and it is also possible to absorb toxic levels of these metals. Stainless steel may be a lousy heat conductor, but the qualities that make it "stainless" also mean that it is chemically inert, and less prone to toxicity.

                          Probably more than you wanted to know...

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