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Do You Have a Really Old Green Book on Your Shelf?

Pretty but possibly poisonous

Bookshelves with old books arranged by color
Photo: Sara Cohen on Unsplash

The curious, cool stuff we learn from reading

Not long ago, I was scrolling through some National Geographic articles and was interested to find an article on green books there. Since I usually read National Geo for my fix on travel and animals, I was surprised but delighted to find something of a literary nature.

Once again, I was bowled over by how much you can learn from reading. In just a few minutes, I learned about pretty, but poisonous, old green books.

Do you have a really old green book on your shelf? Like from the 1800s?

Progress in bookbinding

If you’re a collector of old or rare books, you’ll want to check your shelves for green volumes.

In the 1820s, two men changed the look of books forever. A bookbinder named Archibald Leighton, and a publisher, William Pickering, got a better idea. They developed a game-changing process. Until this time, books had been bound with leather because fabric wasn’t strong enough. The problem with leather, though, was that it was very expensive and the cost kept books from being accessible to the common people.

Leighton and Pickering figured out how to produce “bookcloth,” a fabric that was coated with starch. The starch filled in the weave of the material and stiffened it, giving it the necessary strength to be used in bookbinding.

Bookcloth was much cheaper than leather, allowing more people to purchase books. Dyes could also be added to the starch. Beginning in the 1840s, books became colorful. Printers and binders added color to the starches and, voila, volumes for sale flaunted much flashier covers than in the past.

“It ain’t easy bein’ green”

in 1814, before bookcloth had even been created, Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company out of Schweinfurt, Germany had developed this gorgeous, brilliant shade of green made from copper and arsenic. Different names for this hue were Paris Green, Vienna Green, and Schweinfurt Green — (for the town in which it was developed), and it was extremely popular. In Victorian England, between 1814 and 1860, this emerald green was so popular that more than 700 tons of it was produced for use in house paint, fabric for clothing, wallpaper, and fake flowers.

But there was a problem with that pretty green.

It was poisonous.

“Feelin’ a little green around the gills?”

People back then knew that this color was toxic. They understood the chemical makeup of arsenic, after all. Dust from the green wallpaper coated the floors and people who wore those emerald green dresses got skin irritations and got sick. But the glow of that green made them keep using it.

Including making green book bindings.

Arsenic is definitely toxic, but it takes more than 100 milligrams of it to make someone deathly ill. In the emerald green books that have been tracked down so far, the rate of arsenic in the green-dyed bookcloth is only 1.42 milligrams per square centimeter, so not enough to really hurt you unless you’re doing extensive research day after day from green bound books, (or licking the covers in some bizarre state of literary lunacy.)

“Paris Green” was never outlawed. Instead, the trends changed, and it just wasn’t popular anymore. (Remember avocado green and harvest gold?)

Really old green books on your shelf?

The moral to the story is that pretty though they be, emerald green book covers from the 1800s may very well be poisonous, with the majority of arsenic-laced green covers being produced in the 1850s.

If you think you have any, the Poison Book Project is trying to round them up.



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