Poison Book Project

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Emerald green bookcloth. Courtesy, Winterthur Library, Printed Book and Periodical Collection

by Melissa Tedone

The Winterthur Poison Book Project is an ongoing investigation initiated in April 2019 to identify potentially toxic pigments coloring Victorian-era bookcloth.

Analysis of decorated, cloth-case, publisher’s bindings at Winterthur Library revealed starch-coated bookcloth colored with “emerald green,” or copper acetoarsenite, an inorganic pigment known to be extremely toxic. This pigment’s popularity in England and the United States during the Victorian era is well documented. While the colorant was known to be widely used in textiles for home decoration and apparel, wallpaper, and toys, its use specifically in bookcloth has not been formally explored. Successful bookcloths were a closely guarded trade secret during the nineteenth century, limiting our current understanding of their materiality and manufacture. Conservation staff and interns at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library conducted a survey of bookcloth pigments in order to correlate the presence of emerald green and other potentially toxic pigments with specific publishers and date ranges. The project initially focused on the library’s circulating collection, which poses a greater potential risk to patrons, and then expanded to include the rare book collection.

In December 2019, the Winterthur Library data set was further expanded in cooperation with The Library Company of Philadelphia, which has significant holdings of cloth-case publisher’s bindings.

What differentiates this research project from others centered around arsenic-based pigments in library collections is threefold: first, the toxic pigment permeates the outer covering of Victorian-era, cloth-case publisher’s bindings; second, the large quantity of arsenic-based pigment present in bookcloth; and third, such mass-produced bindings may be commonly found in both special and circulating library collections across the United States and the United Kingdom.

General Handling Tips for Nineteenth-Century Cloth-Case Bindings

Nearly 40% of the nineteenth-century cloth-case bindings analyzed for this project, to date, contain lead in the bookcloth colorant. No matter what pigments or dyes may be present, it is best practice to avoid eating or drinking while handling these books. It is also best practice to wash hands after handling books, especially before eating or drinking.

Trends in Use of Emerald Green Bookcloth

Based on the data collected at Winterthur Library and The Library Company of Philadelphia, the following trends in the use of emerald green bookcloth have been identified:

Composite image showing color variation of emerald green bookcloth on book spines, likely a result of light damage. Even when the color on the spine has faded and browned, the green cloth on the front and back covers remains vividly green. Courtesy, Winterthur Library, Printed Book and Periodical Collection
  • Vibrant green bookcloth covering the boards (front and back covers)
  • Vibrant green or faded brownish bookcloth on the spine
  • Gold and blind stamped decoration, often paired with gilt textblock edges
  • English or American imprint
  • Publication date between 1840s-1860s

We are developing a color swatch bookmark to aid in the visual identification of volumes potentially bound in emerald green bookcloth. These bookmarks will be available from March 2020, and information on how to obtain them will be posted here.

Safe Handling & Storage Tips for Arsenical Books

Avoid opportunities for ingestion or inhalation of emerald green pigment. Avoid eating, drinking, smoking, or biting fingernails while handling potentially arsenical bookcloth.

Wear nitrile gloves:

Avoid handling suspected emerald green bookcloth with bare hands. Although arsenic is unlikely to be absorbed through the skin, it can offset onto the hands and be ingested or inhaled through touching the face or eating/drinking. Handling books with damp or sweaty hands can increase the risk of arsenic offsetting onto the skin.

Wash hands:

Even when using gloves, wash hands after handling suspected emerald green bookcloth.

Isolate book for storage:

If a book is suspected to be bound in emerald green bookcloth, seal the book in a zip-top, polyethylene baggie to limit handling and contain potentially friable pigment. Winterthur Library relocated arsenical books from its circulating collection to its rare book collection.

Wipe down surfaces:

Handle books bound in emerald green bookcloth on hard surfaces (such as a table), and avoid upholstered surfaces (such as an armchair). After handling, wipe down hard surfaces that have come into contact with the book using a damp, disposable cloth.

For Conservators:

A professional conservator performing a conservation treatment on a book bound in emerald green bookcloth should observe the same precautions as above. In addition, work under a certified chemical fume hood. If a chemical fume hood is not available, a second option is to conduct treatment using a ductless fume hood for particulates with a combination HEPA/charcoal filter. Be aware that the introduction of wet adhesives could cause arsenic to migrate in greater concentration toward the source of moisture.

Arsenical Books List

In the nineteenth century, not every book from the same edition would have been bound identically. Therefore, it is possible to have a book of the same edition listed below, but which is not bound in emerald green bookcloth. We provide this list of books that we have found to contain arsenic as a starting point from which other institutions and private collectors may consider their own collections.


OCLC No. Title Author Imprint Date
Affection's Gift Philadelphia: Henry F. Anners 1850
Angel Whispers Boston: Dayton & Wentworth 1855
Angel Whispers Boston: Wentworth & Co. 1856
Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, Esq., The New York & Philadelphia: Appleton & Co. 1845
Crystal Sphere: its forces and its beings, The Sanders, J. Milton London: Hippolyte Bailliere, 219, Regent Street, and 290, Broadway, New York. Paris: J.B. Bailliere, Rue Hautefeuille. Madrid: Bailly Bailliere, Calle del Principe. 1857
54211672 Elementary Instruction in the Art of Illuminating and Missal Painting on Vellum, etc, 4th edition Laurent de Lara, D. London: Ackermann & Co. Strand, and all booksellers 1858
Ellen; or, The Chained Mother Harlan, Mary B. Cincinnati. : Published for the author, by Applegate & Co. 1855
Faggots for the Fireside Goodrich, Samuel G. (Samuel Griswold), 1793-1860. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1854
Floral Souvenir, A Perennial Gift Chambersburg, PA: Shryock, Reed & Co. 1841
Friendship's Offering New York: Leavitt & Allen 1856
Gem Annual, The Philadelphia : E. H. Butler & Co. 1854
Gift of Love Boston: J.Buffum 1850
Hoyle's Games Philadelphia: Henry F. Anners 1845
Kanavagh: a tale, Illustrated Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth London: W. Kent & Co. (Late D. Bogue) 86, Fleet Street 1858
Leaflets of Memory New York: Leavitt & Allen 1855
Liberty Bell, The Boston: National Anti-Slavery Bazaar 1856
Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome Macaulay, Thomas Babington Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co. 1854
Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1859
My Own Garden Mrs. Loudon London: Kerby & Son 1855
Nellie Gray, or Ups and Downs of Everyday Life Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union 1855
4272866 Nothing to Eat, Illustrated Jenkins, Edward O. New York: Dick and Fitzgerald 1857
Oasis, or Golden Leaves of Friendship, The Ferguson, N.L., Ed. Boston : Dayton and Wentworth, 86 Washington Street 1855
On Human Longevity and the Amount of Life Upon the Globe Flourens, P. (Pierre), 1794-1867. London: New York: H. Bailliere, Publisher 1855
Patent Hat, The Ballou, Ellis, d. 1903. New-York: : Published for the author by Carlton and Phillips, 200 Mulberry-St. 1855
Plants of the Holy Land Osborn, Henry S. Philadelphia : Parry & McMillan 1860
Poems of Oliver Goldsmith, The London and New York: George Routledge & Co. 1859
Rosebud, The New York: Leavitt & Allen 1856
Rosebud, The New York: Leavitt & Allen 1856
Rural Annual and Year-Book of Country Life New York: Leavitt & Allen 1856
4799738 Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, 2nd edition Hibberd, Shirley London: Groombridge & Sons 1857
Snowflake: a Christmas, New Year, and birthday gift, for MDCCCLIV Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co. 1854
Sweet Home; or: Friendship's Golden Altar Boston: L.P. Crown & Co.; Philadelphia: J.W. Bradley 1856
1044734 Tallis's history and description of the Crystal palace, and the Exhibition of the world's industry in 1851; illustrated by beautiful steel engravings, from original drawings and daguerreotypes by Beard, Mayall, etc Tallis, John London & New York: J. Tallis and co. 1852
1044734 Tallis's history and description of the Crystal palace, and the Exhibition of the world's industry in 1851; illustrated by beautiful steel engravings, from original drawings and daguerreotypes by Beard, Mayall, etc Tallis, John London & New York: J. Tallis and co. 1852
1044734 Tallis's history and description of the Crystal palace, and the Exhibition of the world's industry in 1851; illustrated by beautiful steel engravings, from original drawings and daguerreotypes by Beard, Mayall, etc Tallis, John London & New York: J. Tallis and co. 1852
Wanderers by Sea and Land, The Goodrich, Samuel G. (Samuel Griswold), 1793-1860. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1854
Winter Wreath of Summer Flowers, A Goodrich, Samuel G. (Samuel Griswold), 1793-1860. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1854
Works of Robert Burns, The New York: Leavitt & Allen 1856

Methodology & Results of Analysis

English-language books published between 1837 and 1900 align with the rising use of bookcloth on publisher’s case bindings, and were identified at Winterthur Library through the WinterCat OPAC. The first 200 books tested represented a range of vivid bookcloth colors. Thereafter, only books covered in green cloth were selected for analysis, in order to focus on arsenic and move through the collection more efficiently. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) was used to collect elemental information from bookcloths. When arsenic and copper were found together, Raman spectroscopy was used to confirm copper acetoarsenite. A total of 406 books from the Winterthur collection were analyzed, and ten were confirmed to contain copper acetoarsenite.

The Library Company of Philadelphia shelves its Americana collection chronologically according to publication date. Volumes were selected for testing by visual scan of the shelves in the appropriate date range (1830s through 1900). Approximately 80 books bound in green bookcloth or with green paper onlays were tested using handheld XRF. Spectra and bibliographical data were saved for each volume which showed the presence of arsenic and copper. A total of 28 books from the Library Company collection were found to contain arsenic.

The University of Delaware Soil Testing Lab performed quantitative analysis on a destructive sample from one Winterthur Library volume and revealed the presence of significant levels of arsenic. Quantitative analysis for arsenic on a dry cotton swab rolled across the surface of the bookcloth indicated that the bookcloth colorant is extremely friable.

Project Researchers

Lead Conservator: Dr. Melissa Tedone

Lead Scientist: Dr. Rosie Grayburn

Contributors:

Emily Guthrie, Winterthur Library Director and NEH Librarian for Printed Books & Periodicals
Jennifer Rosner, Head of Conservation, The Library Company of Philadelphia
Meghan Abercrombie, Winterthur Intern
Philip DePaola, Winterthur Intern
Layla Huff, Winterthur Intern
Sara Leonowitz, Winterthur Intern

Bookmark Designer:

Karissa Muratore, Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) Class of 2020

Consultant:

Michael Gladle, Director of Environmental Health & Safety, University of Delaware

Further Reading

"Copper Acetoarsenite." NOAA CAMEO Chemicals version 2.7.1. rev 1. Accessed February 13,2020. https://cameochemicals.noaa.gov/chemical/2981

Gehle, Kim. “Arsenic Toxicity.” Environmental Health and Medicine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, last modified January 15, 2010. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=1&po=0

Lundblad, Kristina. Bound to be modern : publishers' cloth bindings and the material culture of the book, 1840-1914. Trans. Alan Crozier. New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Press, 2015.

Krupp, Andrea. Bookcloth in England and America, 1823-50. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library; New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 2008.

Tomlinson, William, and Richard Masters. Bookcloth 1823-1980 : a study of early use and the rise of manufacture, Winterbottom's dominance of the trade in Britain and America, production methods and costs, and the identification of qualities and designs. Cheshire, Eng.: D. Tomlinson, 1996.

Whorton, James C. The Arsenic Century: how Victorian Britain was poisoned at home, work, and play. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Funding Acknowledgments

The project team is grateful to the University of Delaware Art Conservation Department for generously funding the design and first printing of our color swatch bookmark.

Disclaimer

Copyright 2020. 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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