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Is that book safe to touch?

by Heidi Pettitt on 2022-10-24T16:31:19-05:00 | Comments

Today we know of arsenic, chromium, lead, and mercury as dangerous chemicals and not ones you’d come into contact with frequently, but it wasn’t that long ago that they were included in makeup, paint, and fabric. The colors they produce – emerald green, chrome yellow and red, cinnabar, and white – were highly prized and used extensively in décor, especially during the 1800s. These days we know how dangerous these materials are and no longer use them in most applications.

Of the chemicals, arsenic was the deadliest and has two interesting ties to literature. First, it was a very common poison since it could be purchased easily for rat control, so it is used in many novels including:

Second, it was used in the production of a beautiful, emerald green cloth used to cover books. The investigation of arsenic and other chemicals used to color book cloth is the mission behind the Poison Book Project at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. Their project began in 2019 when they examined around 350 books using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy to determine if the cover contained both arsenic and copper. If both were identified, Raman spectroscopy was used to confirm copper acetoarsenite, an extremely toxic pigment. Using this process, they were able to identify 39 books that contained the pigment.

Since their discovery, they have worked to publicize their results to help other libraries identify these potentially toxic books in their own collections. Their findings indicate that these books typically have:

  • Vibrant green book cloth covering the boards (front and back covers)
  • Vibrant green or faded brownish book cloth on the spine
  • Gold and blind stamped decoration, often paired with gilt text block edges
  • Publication date primarily between the 1840s and 1860s
  • Variations on a morocco grain pattern are common, although other book cloth grains have also been identified

This summer we surveyed the library collection to identify books that might have this emerald green book cloth. First, we identified over 1,100 books that met the timeframe qualifications. Then we located the books, noted if they were green, and used a tool published by Winterthur to determine if they were the specific green. We didn't locate any items in the circulating collection but found three potential matches in Special Collections. For now, we have sequestered the books until we can do further testing.

You can learn more about the original project at or explore the history of arsenic in one of the following books:

If you are interested in learning more about Loras Special Collections please join us for "From The Outside In: Uncovering the Hidden Stories Within Loras College’s Rare Books Collection" presented by Rare Book Cataloger, Andrea Martin. Tuesday, October 25, 4pm, MARC 3rd Floor Commons. In this presentation, we’ll look at how the materials of the book, from the binding to the paper, can be entry points into a world of stories that exist above, beneath, and alongside the primary content of the text.  

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