Monday, July 2, 2018

Arsenic and Old Books

Book Read Old Literature Pages Books Books Imagine being a bookbinder in the 16th and 17th centuries when you would recycle earlier materials into your current book.  People have discovered remnants of medieval manuscripts, Roman law, and canonical law made into the cover of a newer book.

Once the covers were made, someone then painted it over obscuring the original material.  At least three books in the University of Denmark library meet this description.

Scientists took these books to be checked by x-ray technology to learn more. They were hoping to read the remnants in the cover but during the micro-XRF, it was revealed the green paint was arsenic, a poison often used in murder mysteries. Arsenic is considered one of the most deadly poisons out there.  Exposure to this substance can lead to cancer or death.

Arsenic is one of the ingredients of Paris Green, or Emerald Green because it is a green similar to the gemstone.  The size of the grain determines the shade of the paint.  The smaller grains produce a lighter green while the larger ones produce a darker green.  In addition, this color does not easily fade and has an intense color.

By the 19th century, Paris Green was commercially produced and used in a variety of ways from book covers to clothing.  It was used to dye stamps designed to be licked or in dresses worn to balls, etc.  Both exposed people directly to the poison.  The problem with arsenic paint is that particles can end up in a person's lungs and in certain circumstances, the paint produces a poisonous gas.

In the case of books, it is thought they were covered with Paris Green to protect them from bugs and other insects.  Although they only found three books at the University of Denmark other universities could have deadly books on their shelves.  The University carefully placed the three books in special containers so no one is accidentally poisoned.

 By the second half of the 19th century, Paris Green was known to be poisonous but that did not mean it immediately ceased being used.  At one point, an American doctor created books filled with samples of wall paper containing arsenic which he sent out to libraries around the country.  The book was supposed to warm people but it also poisoned a few.  Today only four copies are still in existence but they are carefully handled. 

Unfortunately, even after the dangers were known, people didn't immediately throw things out.  Many items remained in family homes until they were donated to museums and libraries where they reside today.  Museums and libraries need to check their inventory for arsenic so people stay safe.

Let me know what you think.  I'd love to hear.  Have a great day.


  1. How interesting Lee. I've never heard of such a thing. Some people are afraid books can poison the mind, but in this case, they can literally poison the body! I love books--new and old. Thanks for sharing this interesting tidbit on Blogger's Pit Stop.

    1. Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment. I didn't know this until I ran across the information.

  2. It seems to be only recently that arsenic became something people kept their distance from. It was useful (although I didn't know about its use in book binding), even if it did some collateral damage. It was mined in Cornwall (where I live)--it was a byproduct of tin and copper mining.

    A song about Cornish mining has the lines, "Where the copper and clay, the arsenic and tin, run in your blood and get under you skin."

    Oh, I can't help myself, I just have to leave you a link to that too:

  3. Fascinating read. I had heard about this and shudder to think if anyone reading these books might get some arsenic on their fingers.

  4. That was very interesting Lee, I know arsenic pops up in many things but I had not heard about the book binding use. We will feature your post on the next Blogger's Pit Stop.

    1. Thank you. I realize I'm running late with a reply but life got so busy during the summer.