Conservators Find Arsenic on Old Books
Comparing “green” 19th century books to the shades now known to be hazardous
In spring 2019, Dr. Melissa Tedone was working to restore an 1857 second edition of Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste by James Shirley Hibberd in preparation for an exhibition at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware. As the associate library conservator, she was surprised at how easily the book cloth flaked and began to wonder if it was made with a toxic pigment rather than a dye.
Sure enough, when her colleague Dr. Rosie Grayburn, a conservation scientist at Winterthur, ran tests on the book, it turned up an alarming amount of copper and arsenic. The chemical compound copper acetoarsenite, also known as “emerald green” pigment, was known to have been used in Victorian-era textiles, but [it] had yet to be identified as something widely used in book cloth of the time period.
“I’m 100 percent sure that I’m not the first person to wonder if bright green book cloth was colored from emerald green,” Tedone said. “But I happened to be in the right place to have it tested.”
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