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The NRM’s collection of possibly poisonous books.

    In 1820 Archibald Leighton, a bookbinder, and William Pickering, a book publisher, developed a method of coating fabric with starch, making it stiffer – this was the first commercial book cloth and it became a sensation. As cloth bound books became popular in the later 1800s, bookbinders started to take advantage of the wide array of colors they now had at their disposal. This resulted in books being published in a veritable rainbow of shades. Depending on how much money you had, you could order books bound in specific colors to match your personal library. A book could be a fashionable accessory if you could afford to make it so. Emerald green was one of the more vibrant hues a book (or dress, or hat) could come in, but emerald green items came with a concerning caveat – they were poisonous.

    There are two ways to color a cloth bound book, dyes and pigments (these sound like they’re synonyms but there’s actually a difference). Dyes will chemically bond with the material they are applied to, whereas a pigment is something spread on top of a material. The greens used on book-cloth fall into the latter category, they’re pigments. There are a shocking amount of arsenical greens, the first of which being Scheele’s Green which arrived on the scene in 1775, when it was invented ‘almost on accident’ by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Scheele’s green was incredibly vibrant, so the color quickly replaced the less than brilliant green pigments that were on the market. And then came Schweinfurt Green, created in 1814, by a paint and dye company in Schweinfurt Germany, and grew in popularity so fast that “By 1860, these many varieties of Schweinfurt Green were being produced to the extent of 700 tons per year in Britain alone, and still more was imported from the continent” (The Arsenic Century, James C. Whorton). So far, the Poison Book Project (run by the Winterthur Museum) has identified around 88 books confirmed (by chemical testing) to contain toxic green pigment. And Green wasn’t the only toxic color on the market. Carbonated lead was famously used as pigment in things like makeup, lead and yes, books. When the Melbourne Museum in Australia tested 120 books from their Rare Book Collection for heavy metals and toxic pigments, “just four in the museum’s collection contained arsenic while 10 had high levels of lead.” (Museums Victoria). Lead could be mixed with various other pigments to create colors like red and even a vibrant yellow (which can be found in many of Van Gogh’s paintings). Mercury, another heavy metal was used to create Vermillion, a beautiful shade of red for years. Vermillion can often be found in the marbled end papers of older books.

“The Arsenic Waltz” a cartoon featured in British comedy magazine
“Punch” is dedicated to those who made the poisonous gowns


 Toxic shades of green weren’t only found in books, quite the opposite in fact. Scheele and Schweinfurt greens could be found in everything from candy and medicine to wallpaper (it’s actually thought that Scheele Green wallpaper was partially responsible for the death of Napoleon!). Gowns dyed with the greens were particularly striking, but they were also incredibly dangerous to the wearer. Victorian gowns were made with incredible amounts of fabric (according to historicalsewing.com, up to 10 yards of fabric could be used for one gown!). “On a dry fabric, this might not cause too many problems,” says Ali Bodley, senior curator at York Castle Museum in an interview with Museums of the World, “but as soon as the wearer started to perspire, the arsenic could be absorbed into the blood stream.” where the chemical could do serious and long-lasting damage.

    Now these books don’t contain enough arsenic to harm someone badly, but experts still recommend that if you find a book or item you suspect contains arsenic, you should take care to handle it with gloves and clean the surfaces it came in contact with. In a National Geographic article on Emerald Green books and their possible dangers, Michael Gladle the director of environmental health and safety at the University of Delaware talks about if handling the books is dangerous or not “Arsenic is a heavy metal and does have some toxicity associated with it, principally, either inhalation or ingestion,” he says. The relative risk of emerald green book cloth “depends on frequency,” Gladle says, and is really only a concern “for those that are in the business of preservation.” (Justin Brower, Michael Gladle, National Geographic). The same goes for books with lead or mercury pigments, yes, the chemicals are detrimental to your health in large quantities or throughout prolonged exposures (factory workers who handled emerald green by the gallon would suffer skin lesions and in extreme cases even cancer), but they amount used in books will rarely make someone sick.

Illustrated plate from a French medical book showing
arsenic injuries to the hands

    For more information on arsenical books, how to identify them, and to see a list of confirmed toxic books, visit the Winterthur Poison Book Projects website (http://wiki.winterthur.org/PoisonBookProject/). The Winterthur Conservationists are the leading researchers when it comes to poisonous books. If you think you have a book with arsenical green book cloth, you can even request that they send you a bookmark with full color swatches of the various shades so you can identify them. The Northwest Railway Museum recently requested a batch of these bookmarks so that we can take the proper measures when it comes to handling our own collection of books, some of which may be arsenic or emerald green.

Another shot of the museum’s own possibly toxic books