This Is How To Tell if Your Book Collection Is Poisonous

Are you a collector of antique books? According to the Poisonous Book Project, you may want to double-check if your collection is toxic.

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Four antique books on a shelf. Alternating colors, two are mostly red and the other two are gray.

In the French National Library, two books were removed from the shelves. But it is not because of the nature of their content. A collaboration between Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, and the University of Delaware named the Poisonous Book Project looks for books with specific details hidden in their covers. Historic bookbinding practices, they found, may have used poisonous amounts of arsenic.

A Deadly History of Color

Antique books are a product of their time — both in content and creation. Specifically, the Poisonous Book Project examines a book cover’s makeup. Mass production led to a shift in bookbinding, transitioning from expensive leather to cheap cloth. During the 19th century, these cloths were dyed in bright but dangerous colors.

Neatly arranged on a black wooden desk are worn-in bookbinding supplies.

For example, the shade Scheele’s green is created by mixing arsenic and copper. This color was cheap and innovative, the brightest shade of green to exist at the time. Yet, it was soon traded for Paris and emerald green, which were longer-lasting. But when the pigments began to degrade, they would release harmful, carcinogenic arsenic, responsible for poisoning children and factory workers, causing vomiting and convulsions.

A worn-down, green and brown leather antique book on a white background.

So infamous, The Arsenic Waltz originated from the effects of these pigments. Further, the pigments were found to be partially responsible for Napoleon’s death. A fan of the new shades, Napoleon had his St. Helena residence painted in these colors, and upon his death, high levels of arsenic were found in his hair. Toxic wallpapers, as found in his home, continued to be sold well into the 19th century.

Four spines of worn-in, bright red antique books with dainty gold stripes.

Additionally, red and yellow antique book covers raise concerns about toxins. The red shade of vermilion was made from mercury sulfide, which can cause mercury poisoning. This type of vermillion is found in marbled patterning on the inside covers of antique books. Shades of yellow made from lead chromate allowed bookbinders to create a variety of yellows, greens, oranges, and browns. Its components, while toxic, are not critically soluble when combined, limiting its absorption and health hazards. This lead chromate pigment is in use today.

How to Safely Be Bookish

Casual exposure to the centuries-old green pigment can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. But the only people who should be truly concerned about the potential toxins in antique, 19th-century books are those who handle them regularly. Take your precautions and wear gloves, avoiding contact with your face.

Stacks of worn, yellowing, antique books with red and gray covers.

Book marks from the Poisonous Book Project are available to help readers identify book colors of concern. Worldwide, 238 arsenic books have been discovered. So, the next time you come across a collection of old books, think twice before purchasing!

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