Walls of Death

This Book of Wallpaper Samples Could Literally Kill You

When I heard about a book titled Shadows from the Walls of Death, by Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, I was immediately intrigued. And then I started reading about it, and couldn’t help but cackle. The opening paragraph from 99% Invisible is so unintentionally hilarious that I can’t help but not share it with you:


In an era when two thirds of American residences were home to poisonous wallpapers, an awareness-raising book was published.  But the ominously titled Shadows from the Walls of Death did more than warn consumers of health risks — it collected and bound together actual samples of deadly arsenic-laden, wall-covering paper.


There’s something so poetic about a book aimed to educate the public that in fact, would poison them. If you can’t see the delicious irony here, you should probably just stop reading, because I’m going to continue to revel in it.


The Civil War-era book was created by Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, a surgeon and chemist concerned with the public’s safety re: arsenic. At the time, it was well known that the chemical was poisonous to those who ate it, but its widespread use in wallpaper was not so well known. It was commonplace to mix arsenic with copper to dye wallpaper that would then be used in homes across the nation. 


Rather than educate the public with a cautionary tale or scathingly satirical expose, Dr. Kedzie instead compiled a book filled with pages and pages of samples of toxic wallpaper. 


Yup, he literally put together a book that could passively kill you from flipping through its pages.


“As part of his campaign to raise awareness about poison papers, Kedzie produced 100 copies of Shadowsand sent them out to public libraries across Michigan. Each one is a slim volume, containing few words — just a title page, a short preface, and a note from the Board of Health explaining the purpose of the book and advising librarians not to let children handle it,” said Andrew Zawaki in an article explaining how libraries handled such a dangerous book. 


Shadows from the Walls of Death

Image via 99% Invisible


Most of the copies of this book have been destroyed: there are only four copies left in the world. Two are held in the University of Michigan’s library in their Special Collections, with each page of the pair individually wrapped in plastic, while the other two can be found at the Harvard University Medical School and the National Library of Medicine.


Wanna see the book for yourself? You can check out a scanned version online. Scholars who have handled the book themselves argue “there is no substitute for seeing it in person”, to which I can only say duh.


Featured Image via 99% Invisible.