Chrome Yellow Bookcloth

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As part of the Poison Book Project at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, the toxic pigment chrome yellow was detected in 19th-century cloth-case bookbindings using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) and confirmed using Raman spectroscopy.

Color Range of Chrome Yellow Bookcloths

Victorian-era bookcloth colored with chrome yellow pigment may range from deep, bright, or olive greens (achieved by mixing chrome yellow with various percentages of Prussian blue) to yellows, oranges, and browns. Smaller percentages of chrome yellow mixed with Prussian blue were used to color chromium green bookcloth throughout the 19th century. Chrome yellow was used in larger quantities to color yellow and orange bookcloths predominantly in the 1880s-1890s, a time period that correlates with more affordable pricing for the pigment than earlier in the century.

Chrome yellow bookcloths in a range of hues. Courtesy, Winterthur Library, Printed Book and Periodical Collection
Orange and yellow hues of chrome yellow bookcloth. Courtesy, Winterthur Library, Printed Book and Periodical Collection
Brownish hues of chrome yellow bookcloth. Courtesy, Winterthur Library, Printed Book and Periodical Collection

General Handling Tips for 19th-Century Cloth-Case Bindings

Nearly 50% of the 19th-century, cloth-case bindings analyzed for this project to date contain lead in the bookcloth. Lead levels have been shown to be particularly high in chrome yellow bindings.

No matter which pigments or dyes may be present, 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.

Further Reading

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2008. “Chromium Toxicity.” U.S. Department of Health Human Services. Accessed July 20, 2021.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2012. “Toxicological profile for Chromium.” Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

Glenn, W.M. 1889. “Chrome Yellow Considered as a Poison.” Science 13 (326): 347-349.

Khühn, Hermann, and Mary Curran. 1986. [“Chrome Yellow and Other Chromate Pigments.” In Artists’ Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, vol. 1, Edited by Robert L. Feller, 187-200. Washington: National Gallery of Art.

Otero, Vanessa, Leslie Carlyle, Márcia Vilarigues, and Maria J. Melo. 2011. “Chrome yellow in nineteenth century art: historic reconstruction of an artists’ pigment.” RSC Advances 2: 1798-1805.

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2000. “Chromium Compounds: Hazard Summary.” Accessed July 14, 2021.

Project Researchers

Lead Conservator: Dr. Melissa Tedone

Lead Scientist: Dr. Rosie Grayburn

Winterthur Team:

Emily Guthrie, (former) Winterthur Library Director, and Winterthur Library staff
Mina Porell, Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Paintings Conservation
Meghan Abercrombie, Winterthur Intern
Philip DePaola, Winterthur Intern
Layla Huff, Winterthur Intern
Sara Leonowitz, Winterthur Intern
Jess Ortegon, WUDPAC Fellow
Esther Weyer, Winterthur Intern


Copyright 2021. This article describes conservation procedures and is meant to be used as exchange of technical information among trained cultural heritage conservators, and the procedures described herein should not be performed by anyone who is not a trained professional. Further, any advice, graphics, images, and information contained in this page is presented for general educational and information purposes, and to increase safety awareness in connection with the storage and handling of aged books that may contain toxic chemicals, such as arsenic. The storage, handling, and other safety tips included in this page are suggestions only and have been collected by the Poison Book Project of The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc. after consultation with scientists and other experts in the conservation field. None of the content in this page has been subjected to a formal peer review and is not intended to be medical or other expert advice or services, and should not be used in place of consultation with appropriate professionals. The information contained in this page should not be considered exhaustive, and the user should seek the advice of appropriate professionals.

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