Judging a book by its cover
By Harikleia Sirmans
As described in a newsletter from Friends of Conservation, a supporter of the American Institute for Conservation, the book had arrived on Dr. Melissa Tedone’s work bench in need of repair. Dr. Tedone is a conservator and the lab head for library materials conservation at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library. Titled, Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (London 1857), the book was bound in an emerald green cloth, similar in color to some Victorian wallpapers Dr. Tedone knew to contain arsenic. Concerned, she tested the bookcloth’s green dye pigments. The results: copper acetoarsenite was present. Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste was toxic.
As they age, toxic bookcloths crumble into microscopic particles that settle on bookshelves, or float in the air, or transfer to the hands of people who handle the book. If these people touch their eyes or inhale these tiny but poisonous particles, they could become seriously ill.
Identification techniques for arsenic on emerald green bookcloth
With the help of her colleague Dr. Rosie Grayburn, Dr. Tedone identified the green pigments on her bookcloth using the following non-destructive techniques:
- Handheld X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF). This technique was used to analyze the chemical composition of the green bookcloth.
- Raman Spectroscopy. This technique measured how the light from the laser interacted with copper acetoarsenite as the specific element on the emerald green bookcloth.
- Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM). This additional technique analyzed samples of seven other green bookcloths.
- Microchemical Test Kits. These kits were tested for the detection of arsenic on the bookcloth.The kits relied on the measurements of arsine gas.
- Color Swatch Bookmark. These are green color swatches that the Winterthur conservators developed as a visual aid to help institutions and individuals sort out their green book collections.
Bathed in arsenic
In late 18th century and early 19th century, arsenic copper green colors were widely used in fashion: apparel, home furnishings, wallpaper, and toys. Arsenic made vibrant greens that everyone wanted. But over time, scientists discovered that prolonged exposure to arsenic had multiple medical effects. For example, rooms covered in green wallpaper would emit poisonous fumes under hot and humid conditions that killed any person living in those rooms. Women who wore green ballgowns and gloves developed ulcers and skin rashes. Others lost their hair or developed liver and kidney problems. Many suffered from fatigue, nausea, and anemia.
Most popular were Scheele’s green and emerald green. Scheele’s Green was invented by chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775 in Sweden. This green resembled the color of a green apple and the green of the sea. It was often used by ship painters. Its scientific name is copper arsenite.
Emerald green or Paris green was an improved version of Scheele’s green. It was invented by George Field in 1814 in Germany. This vibrant green, known by its scientific name, copper acetoarsenite, had a blue-ish hue and was both stable and durable.
Green bookcloth bindings
While Europe and the United States were literally bathed in poisonous green, a new innovation transformed the publishing industry. Artisans used to handcraft book covers from leather. But as the reading population grew, bookmakers found a new and faster way to mass-produce books. They used cloth instead of leather for book covers and they coated it with starch to fill in weave gaps. This technique was developed by publisher William Pickering and bookbinder Archibald Leighton in the 1820s. It produced the first commercial sturdy bookcloth that withstood the binding process. Bookcloth books were also cheaper than leather and accessible to a wider demographic audience. Publishers were now able to produce a colorful array of books including the era’s fashionable but toxic green. As many consumers and workers died, the arsenic-containing green dye was banned, and it was replaced with copper carbonate.
Poison Book Project
Libraries carry several volumes of rare and toxic books on their shelves. These books often go unnoticed. To raise awareness of such toxic textiles among librarians, conservators, museums, and the public, Dr. Tedone and Dr. Grayburn created the Poison Book Project. This project locates, identifies, and catalogues known toxic books. It offers guidance on how to identify and handle these books, particularly those bound between 1840-1860, as well as other 19th century objects such as maps and documents. It further advises how you and your readers can stay safe around such books. The project includes the Arsenical Books Database which contains data about green, mass-produced, 19th century bookbindings. Institutions and individuals may contribute information to this database.
Handling toxic books
Arsenic is a carcinogenic and toxic mineral that can cause cardiovascular disease, skin lesions, neurological problems, developmental disorders, ulcers, nausea, headaches, diarrhea, and more. While books containing arsenic are hazardous, there’s no need for libraries to discard them. They are evidence of a particular historical era and they should be preserved. They just need special handling and storage.
Follow these guidelines:
- Wash your hands before and after you handle important objects. This way, you won’t leave oil or residue from your hands on the object, and the object won’t leave anything on you.
- If you wear gloves, choose nitrile gloves instead of cotton. Cotton gloves have loose fibers that may catch on objects.
- Seal toxic books in polyethylene zip-lock bags to contain potentially flaky pigments.
- Wipe down surfaces that come in contact with toxic books such as shelves or tables. Best avoid displaying these books on upholstered surfaces.
- Avoid handling books while eating, drinking, smoking, biting nails, and touching your face or skin.
- Dispose arsenic-contaminated gloves and dust cloths accordingly or contact your city official for advice on how to dispose hazardous waste.
- Consider removing these books from circulation and moving them to an isolated book collection such as archives or rare books.
- Consider digitizing the books to minimize the need to handle them.
- When repairing these books, consider wearing a chemical fume hood or a ductless fume hood with HEPA/charcoal filter.
- If you find a toxic book in your library, you may want to submit information about it to the Arsenical Books Database.
- If in doubt, contact a conservator at the American Institute for Conservation who specializes in analysis.
In the Victorian era, arsenic-containing greens were used in house paints, wallpaper, carpets, clothes, accessories, artificial flowers, and just about everything, even bookcloth binding. Although it was popular, its use on bookcloth was a trade secret that limited our current understanding of its chemical composition and production process. Conservator, Dr. Tedone, discovered the dangers of arsenic dye pigments while repairing an 1857 book. From then on, she made it her purpose to explore the elemental
composition of Victorian-era book bindings by creating the Poison Book Project. This project helps librarians, rare book collectors, and others identify and handle poisonous books in their collections safely. If you find suspicious books in your collection, follow the project’s guidelines for handling and storing these books or reach out to a conservator. So, you may want to ignore the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and judge it anyway.
Arsenical Books Database. ARSENICAL BOOKS DATABASE – Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2023, from
Brower, J. (2022, May 3). These green books are poisonous-and one may be on a shelf near you.
National Geographic. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-
Find a professional. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.culturalheritage.org/about-conservation/find-a-conservator
Poison Book Project. Poison Book Project – Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2023, from http://wiki.winterthur.org/wiki/Poison_Book_Project
Under The Moonlight. (2018). “A Dark History of Arsenic Greens.” Under The Moonlight. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://underthemoonlight.ca/2018/03/17/a-dark-history-of-arsenic-greens/
Harikleia Sirmans is Librarian at Valdosta State University, and Dressmaker and Owner of Grecian Needle. She is also translator of two Greek novels, and indexer of four film books. She writes articles on textile and fiber arts. She is a TSA member since 2022 and lives in Valdosta, Georgia.
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