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In George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the protagonist gets a job at a "red lead firm". From context, it seems to mean a well-established, maybe stuffy, firm. I wonder if anyone has a more specific description. Here's the passage:

And then Gordon left school, and fat interfering Uncle Walter, who had business connexions in a small way, came forward and said that a friend of a friend of his could get Gordon ever such a 'good' job in the accounts department of a red lead firm.

Unfortunately, all my searches just turn up stuff about a red oxide of lead.

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Red Lead was a material used industrially for centuries. Its applications include use as a pigment. Toxicity means that it is no longer widely used. At the period, there would have been a number of business involved in the extraction, manufacture and trade of red lead.

If the job does have any significance, beyond being mundane and industrial, it is perhaps the moral compromise of involvement with a business whose workers were handling toxic materials with inadequate safety provisions. The topic of lead poisoning was regularly raised in Parliament in this period, and the blandly presented statistics are shocking.

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    Are you sure it's not meant metaphorically? Like "white shoe firm", which doesn't mean a firm that makes shoes. Jul 22 at 16:48
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    @MichaelWeiss if anyone gives evidence of a metaphorical meaning, I'd be quite prepared to accept it. But the fact that nobody has identified such a meaning is quite good evidence that no such meaning was intended. Orwell is not generally a writer who is deliberately obscure.
    – mikado
    Jul 22 at 18:31
  • Not deliberately obscure, but it seems to me from context like an idiom that has fallen out of use. I found plenty of obsolete British slang in Aspidistra, unmarked references to Horace and other classical authors, Villon, Baudelaire, etc. Jul 23 at 15:05
  • I can't see why it should be an idiom. My 1973 Penguin edition (which, coincidentally, I was reading when the question was asked!) has any quotes from French poetry in italics. The slang was still current when I was young and 'red lead' wasn't slang for anything I knew of. He may have chosen it because the stuff was toxic. Jul 23 at 19:00
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'Red lead' might mean specifically the red lead paint which was used as an anti-corrosive on the steelwork of ships and boats.

Because of the risks of lead poisoning, it was banned from sale to the general public in 1992. Today it's "technically available in the UK but only by special licence...In practice however it has been replaced by safer alternatives (such as red oxide) by most UK/EU paint suppliers" (Wikipedia)

(It was a job of mine as a youngster to wind-hammer the old, blistered red lead off the decks of cargo ships when they came into the dock for maintenance. They would then be repainted. The clangour of those hammers was deafening: much worse than pneumatic drills.)

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  • anti-corrosive on the steelwork of ships and boats. - and bridges, see Forth Rail Bridge. "The steelwork received two coats of red lead, one of iron oxide primer and a final coat of Indian red externally and the interior of the tubes one of red lead and two coats of white lead."...
    – tum_
    Jul 22 at 14:55

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