You won't believe what they used to make books pretty
But before we get to that, let's talk about wallpaper. In the late 1700s, wallpaper -- or "stained paper" as it was called -- was very expensive. It was heavily taxed and labor-intensive to make until inventors figured out how to make it from machines. In England, the combination of machine-produced wallpaper and the lifting of the wallpaper tax made wallpaper soar in popularity. One reason for its popularity was its vibrant colors. To get those colors, manufacturers used pigments that used large doses of arsenic, lead and antimony, and the paper was frequently soaked in an especially insidious compound called copper arsenite that gave the paper an emerald green sheen. It also gave the paper a toxicity that made it dangerous not only to the people who made it and hung it, but also to those who lived with it afterward.
By the late 18th century, 80% of English wallpaper contained arsenic, often in significant quantities. When it got humid or damp (it does that in England), the wallpaper gave off a peculiar musty smell. Homeowners also noticed that bedrooms with green wallpaper usually had no bedbugs. It also made people sick. One victim was Frederic Law Olmstead, the designer of New York's Central Park. He suffered arsenic poisoning in 1893 and needed a summer without wallpaper to get well.
It turns out that the same compound that made wallpaper green also was used on book bindings. Because 19th century bookbinders regarded how they made book cloth coloring a trade secret, no one really thought that books, too, could be toxic. But in the spring of 2019, Dr. Melissa Tedone was working to restore an 1850s vintage book for an exhibit at a museum in Delaware. She was surprised 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, ran tests on the book, it turned up to have an alarming amount of the toxic copper arsenic compound. Thus began a journey for Tedone and Grayburn that has since been named the Poison Book Project. The duo has tested hundreds of books from the designated time period with the green color found in the first book. They found nine "poisonous" books in the museum's collection and even found one in a local used bookstore. A local laboratory found that if someone were to ingest such a book, it would kill them several times over (though they would be unaware of that after the first time). ALL BOOKS AT PRINTED PAGE ARE FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY. The scientists hope to test other cloth book covers to see if they, too, might be unsafe, but in the meantime, if you have a book from that era you suspect, wear nitrile gloves when handling the books, wash your hands afterward, and handle the books on hard surfaces that can be wiped down.
Sources: "At Home" by Bill Bryson, "Fine Books and Collections'" magazine.