January 25, 2018
Check out the library book that could actually kill you
by Nikki Griffiths
If you enjoy reading, home decorating, and looking death in the face, the University of Michigan Library has just the thing for you. That’s the gist of an arresting piece Alexander J. Zawacki published this week in Atlas Obscura.
Shadows from the Walls of Death in a nineteenth-century book comprising pages of wallpaper samples. Innocuous enough, you might think… until you learn each sample is saturated with arsenic. This is not as weird as it might sound — it turns out when arsenic is mixed with copper it can create some mightily pretty pigments, the best-known being Scheele’s Green and Paris Green.
The book was compiled by Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, a Union surgeon during the American Civil War and, weirdly, the “father of the Michigan Beet Sugar Industry”: he imported seeds from Europe, and before long Michiganians had beets coming out of their ears. Anyhoo, in 1873 he was elected to serve on the state’s board of health, where he chaired the committee on “Poisons, Special Sources of Danger to Life and Health.” His researched turned up some disturbing findings, and gave him a new mission: to eliminate arsenic from wallpaper in the state.
Kenzie wrote a report for the board in 1874 to outline his concerns. He mentions several cases, including this one, which Laura Bien cites in a 2012 piece for the Ann Arbor Chronicle:
The walls of one bed-room were covered with a paper the ground work of which was stone color with bands of bright green ornamented with gilt. The daughter, Emma, aged 9, occupied this room for several months. Soon after occupying the room her health began to fail, and she exhibited the following symptoms: Lameness, resembling rheumatism, darting pains in various portions of the body; languor in the morning, feverishness, pains in the head and about the frontal sinuses, sores in various parts of the body, faint spells, turning white about the mouth, and great loss of flesh. The best medical advice that could be procured was obtained, but no essential improvement followed. Whenever she left home for a few weeks her health improved; but she relapsed into her former condition on returning home.
Tough break there, Emma. In case you’re wondering how widespread the wallpaper problem was, here’s Bien again:
In 1887, the American Medical Association estimated that between 1879 and 1883, 54–65% of all wallpaper sold in the United States contained arsenic, a third of which at dangerous levels. Over time, the poisonous pigment could flake or be brushed off the wallpaper and float in the air as inhalable dust or settle on furniture in the home.
So our hero, Dr. Kedzie, collected numerous wallpaper samples and had them bound into 100 books in 1874, which were distributed to libraries around Michigan. This was meant as a warning and educational exercise. He included this cheery Bible quote on the title page, just to drum the message home:
And behold, if the plague be in the walls of the house, with hollow strakes, greenish or reddish, …Then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days…. And he shall cause the house to be scraped within round about, and they shall pour out the dust that they scrape off without the city into an unclean place.
Of the 100 original books only four remain, at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Harvard Medical School, and the National Library of Medicine. The National Library have been digitizing their copy, not an easy feat. Stephen Greenberg, head of the rare books and early manuscripts section, told Zawacki, “It was scanned under laboratory conditions, under a fume hood… Picture guys wearing masks and hoods.” You can view the digitised book here.
Kedzie’s campaign was largely successful, helping to eradicate arsenic-laden wallpapers from homes across the country. (Though one lady was apparently poisoned after examining one of the books. Unfortunate.) So next time you’re wallpapering or turning the pages of your favourite book, be grateful it won’t make your hair fall out or cause you to diarrhea yourself to death.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.