Arsenic and Old Lace, or Why I Don’t Have Spiders in the Closet

Paris Green Perfume

Do you like to rescue old things, just because they’re old, even if you don’t know what you’ll do with them? I do. So years ago, when I was helping with a “collection deaccession” and saw this really cool old box that was being discarded, I offered it a home with me.

A green box from Paris.
A green box from Paris, Parfumerie indeed.

It’s been upstairs ever since. Periodically I clean, reorganize, and clear out because I’m compulsive that way. Maybe it helps me handle stress, whatever. I call these events The Counting, in honor of Cold Comfort Farm. Last year when it was time for a Counting, I put all the items I use for antique sewing displays, including the old painted box, together in a tightly sealed plastic bin.

In the following months I went up a couple of times to pull something out of it, and when I lifted the lid, gasped and choked over fumes some sort. The smell was a little like really nasty varnish, maybe mixed with bug spray. It was distressing because I didn’t know the source and I didn’t want it polluting my old textile bits.  I got up close and personal, sniffing the sewing box, the tools, the little lace sleeves and collars, and even the parfumerie box, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.  Since the green box was the only thing relatively recently acquired, I assumed that was the culprit and took it out. No more smells.

Early eye candy.
It’s just sat on a shelf, wrapped in paper, ever since. Until this week when perusing the fabulous Wearable Prints, 1760-1860, History, Materials, and Mechanics, by Susan Greene, and reading about green dyes. Of course I’ve heard of frequent use in the 19th century of arsenic in dyes, paints, and foods – it was even a scandal in its own day. But I never thought it would provide me with anything but some occasional macabre reading. Now I wondered, have I been harboring a criminal, a poisoner?

Some more internet research has left me a little warier of casual collecting or repurposing. I really don’t know if the green box is toxic (it isn’t all that old), but I’m not going to take any chances. It’s sealed up tight and stored under the eaves in the attic now. I can’t bring myself to trash it because you never know when you’ll need a nice conversation piece. For unwelcome visitors.

The Conversation Piece
The Conversation Piece


5 thoughts on “Arsenic and Old Lace, or Why I Don’t Have Spiders in the Closet

  1. Hi- glad to see my effort to include toxins in the book have begun to open eyes! My treasured copy of Persoz with the gorgeous green binding is encased in Mylar because I am 99% sure it was bound in arsenic-laden paper and leather…the stuff can be very disagreeable indeed, so take nothing for granted. Just because a color predates synthetic dyes does not mean it is pure of heart. Furthermore, old stuff can be laced with tough old pathogens so….NEVER take good whiffs of any of it and wash hands! I would leave a little note in the box indicating your experience so if you are not the next one to open it, that person will not have to learn your lesson the hard way, too.


  2. Thanks Susan, I’ve taken your warning to heart and just left a note with the box. I understand about old artifacts hiding things that can still harm today. When I can scrape up the nerve to tell it, I’m going to write about a collection of old sleeves that taught me a lesson, too. By the way, THANK you for writing Wearable Prints – it’s one of the “richest” (information & illustration) on my bookshelf and I will be referring to it for years to come!



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