Arsenic in the Archives

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Examples of USF Libraries Tampa Special Collections books likely tinted with arsenic. Some wholly bound in green cloth, others with green tinted inserts.

Painters and art students are probably already aware that that cadmium accentuated paints they may use can be dangerous.  And any owner of an older home may already have been introduced to the idea that the lead paint, asbestos tiles, or asbestos glue used to fashion their home, once common building materials, have since been revealed to be extremely dangerous or caustic.  When dealing with these dangerous materials, people are counseled to take proper precautions or call in experts. Proper precautions, like wearing gloves, masks, etc., are not foremost in the mind when curling up with a mug of tea and a good book. However, that just the thing to consider when handling 19th century books, as they might contain contaminants like lead, iron, mercury, and arsenic (Poison Book Project, 2022).

Example interior dedication page that might include arsenic pigments.

We know arsenic today to be a highly caustic substance, one that is often the agent of murder on British murder mysteries or films from the 1940s. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), anyone? But, during the Victorian era, arsenic’s other potential uses were widely explored. It quickly became a popular colorant during the Victorian era because of its ability to create vibrant and color fast greens.  It was used in everything from cloth to wallpapers and was especially favored by William Morris in his manufacture of patterned wallpapers (Kerr, 2017).  The publishing industry took advantage of the bright green colors as well, using arsenic-based dies to color book cloth and decorate the covers and interior pages of books.

The Poison Book Project at Winterthur Library is an “ongoing investigation to explore the materiality of Victorian-era publishers’ bindings, with a focus on the identification of potentially toxic pigments used as book cloth colorants.”  Though casual and infrequent interaction with arsenic-contaminated books is not likely to cause major harm, prolonged contact can have negative health consequences for the book handler. Justin Brower’s (2022) National Geographic article on the Poison Book Project cautions those who handle them often, like Special Collections librarians and researchers, as frequent handling could lead to light headedness, lethargy, stomach cramps, and more.

By using the Arsenical Books Database created by the project, USF Libraries Tampa Special Collections have identified a few books in our own archives that are likely colored with arsenic.  A couple, like Friendship’s Offering: A Christmas, New Year and Birthday Gift (a 1856 printing by Leavitt & Allen of New York), are wholly covered in green cloth, while others like The Wanderers by Sea and Land by Peter Parley (1860 printing by D. Appleton and Co., New York), have green painted inserts on the cover.  Other examples may have vibrantly colored dedication pages on the inside that include the arsenic green pigment.

Not to worry though, identification and proper handling is all that is necessary to avoid the ill effects of poison books.  As the Poison Book Project advises, “it is best practice to avoid ingesting anything or touching the face while handling 19th-century, cloth-bound books. It is also best practice to wash hands after handling books, especially before eating, drinking, or smoking.”  Additionally, identifying and appropriately storing the materials keeps Libraries’ personnel forewarned and safe.


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