Arsenic and Old Lace

While it’s common to find old lace in museum collections, you might be surprised to learn that hazardous materials like arsenic can also be found in many museums.  A few days ago, while cataloging a sad iron (sad being an old word for solid), I was surprised to find the name Asbestos Sad Iron printed on the iron.  Upon closer inspection, I found a layer of asbestos in the space between the iron and the handle.  This asbestos lining kept heat from reaching the handle and the hand of the person ironing.  Today, we know that asbestos causes serious health issues, but when this iron was manufactured in the early 1900s, the dangers of asbestos were unknown.

Asbestos is not the only harmful materials found within museum collections.  Arsenic was commonly used in taxidermy to help keep bugs from destroying skins and furs. Mercury, cyanide, formaldehyde, and strychnine are some of the other chemicals which can sometimes be found on or in museum artifacts.  Some museums even house radioactive artifacts.

Hopefully this list of hazardous materials won’t keep you from visiting museums!  In the average museum, artifacts containing these materials are only a tiny fraction of the entire collection.  These artifacts still tell important stories, and when the proper steps are taken, the risks associated with these items are minimal.

Artifacts like the Asbestos Sad Iron are individually bagged and clearly labeled, both on the artifact and in our collections database.  This ensures that the iron is not accidentally handled.  Using safety procedures like wearing gloves and respirators and, most importantly, interacting these objects as little as possible minimizes risks.  Many large museums have a cabinet or room dedicated exclusively to hazardous materials, which ensures that exposure to these artifacts is kept to a minimum.  In severe cases, museums can send affected artifacts to professionals for treatment.

Medical museums, geology museums, and museums with a large number of taxidermy mounts have to deal with these materials on a regular basis.  Fortunately, our collections are highly unlikely to contain these sorts of chemicals.  The Asbestos Sad Iron is definitely an outlier here at the Ephraim Historical Foundation!

-Guest Blogger Emily Irwin

3 thoughts on “Arsenic and Old Lace”

  1. Arsenic and Old Lace, sounds like a good title for a play. I have a memory, about 65 plus years ago, Bonnie (Brown) Rock and her two sisters, Dee and Sally, presented this play one summer. As I remember their mother and aunt helped with the production. Lawn chairs were arranged and many audience members enjoyed this presentation. Your posting of the dangers reminds us that we do need to pay attention to things we have had around for a long time. Thank you for this posting.

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