Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2018 Issue

Arsenic and Old Books

C3e28b01-7ce7-4b7d-9633-b0850d0ea1be

Pretty poison.

Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark's library made a startling discovery recently about three of their 16th and 17th century books. Their covers are filled with poison. To be exact, they contain serious concentrations of arsenic. The bindings are probably more recent, likely the 19th century. Still, there are no murderous motives here, no makings of an Agatha Christie mystery. Arsenic was regularly used for a variety of purposes in those days.

 

The discovery came innocently enough. Bookbinders in past times often used paper or velum from even older books and manuscripts in their bindings. Those older books were just trash then, but today, it is often the case that the books they bound are of less interest than the older material used in the bindings. They may hold lost or unique writings that fill gaps in human knowledge. Still, the libraries or other owners who hold these books don't necessarily want them torn apart. The answer is to use modern, x-ray technologies that enable researchers to look through the covers and read the ink on the pages used in those bindings.

 

In the case of the books at the University of Southern Denmark, researchers discovered there was old parchment used in the bindings. Unfortunately, the x-rays were having a hard time reaching the elements used in writing the letters. There was a wall of green paint in the way. The x-rays revealed that the green paint was made from arsenic. It is most likely what is known as "Paris green" or "emerald green,"a substance that was used both as paint and poison. That was an unfortunate combination as it led to the use of a poisonous substance on items regularly handled by humans.

 

Among its uses as paint, Paris green was commonly used in wallpaper in the 19th century. People didn't realize its dangers. Even as they became aware of its toxic qualities, the belief remained that as long as you didn't lick your wallpaper, you would be all right. Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple. Notably in England where the pigment was commonly used and damp weather is abundant, mold can grow on the paper. It releases a toxic gas which contains the wallpaper's arsenic. Children were literally dying in their bedrooms. It is one of the reasons why people believed drier weather to be healthier. They became ill in their wallpapered homes in a damp climate, but not where dry weather prevented mold from growing.

 

Other places where the pigment was used included paintings. If you have an impressionist painting with shiny green, you should refrain from licking it. Clean with a soft, dry brush instead. Various other products regularly touched by humans, who might then put their fingers in their mouths, included items that can be worn, or toys children used for play.

 

Meanwhile, Paris green had another use. The reason it was most commonly known as Paris rather than emerald green is they used to throw it in the Paris sewers to kill the rats. People regularly kept some in their homes for that purpose. Later on, it was commonly used as an insecticide on crops. It was sprayed on apples and other fruits to prevent worms. In America, it was used to control the native Colorado potato beetle, noted for destroying potato crops. It was used in spray to kill gypsy moths invading northern forests and disease-carrying mosquitoes. It was applied to kill moths that attack tobacco plants, giving you a chance to smoke as well as eat the substance.

 

So, why was Paris green used in a bookbinding? Obviously, not for its color, since however attractive it may be, the arsenic paint was buried under the covers. Most likely, it was applied to prevent insect damage. Just as it can keep worms from boring through apples, arsenic can keep bookworms from boring through books. Now all it needs is a layer of asbestos in the covers and the books can be safe from fire damage too.

 

The Danish library will now store its poisonous books in separate boxes in a ventilated cabinet. It also plans to digitize the books so they don't have to be physically handled. Of course, the computers and monitors you use to view those digitized copies are probably laden with toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. There is no escaping the environment. You pick your poison.

 

The complete story of the discovery by Jakob Povl Holck and Kaare Lund Rasmussen of the University of Southern Denmark can be found on the website of The Conversation. 

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions