Killer wallpaper. A childhood comic strip. A 10-foot portrait made of hair combs. Secret Oval Office Dictabelt recordings. These objects share one thing in common — they’re preserved in archives. Our podcast “Archival Fever” narrates the life stories of artifacts. We dive into the possibilities and problems of how we save history.
Archivists at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University face this kind of fascinating problem. Within their stacks, they have two copies of Dr. Robert Kedzie’s Shadows from the Walls of Death (1874), a book of 19th-century arsenic- laced wallpaper. It literally can make a person feverish! Kedzie intended to raise awareness about the dangers of arsenic by sending 100 copies to libraries around Michigan. Today, handling the book requires protective gear.
Why did people hang paper on their walls that could kill them? Obsessed with the vivid “Scheele’s green” produced by copper arsenite, wealthy Victorians used it in their interior decorating. People didn’t understand the effects of arsenic decor (much like lead paint or asbestos). It might not be to your taste, but the Victorians thought this wallpaper was “to die for.”
Why keep saving books that could kill readers? The simplest answer is that humans are hunter-gather-hoarders. The more complicated answer is that this book describes people who valued color and beauty, much like we see home design picking a “color of the year” now. It also captures the importance of scientific advancement and advocacy through print. Kedzie’s dangerous book paradoxically exists to prevent future tragedy.
In this season, tune in to learn about a portrait of the first self-made female millionaire Madam C.J. Walker by textile artist Sonya Clark at the Blanton Museum, or about the iconic student artwork created for protests in Paris in May 1968. Listen to our January episode on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s secret Oval Office telephone calls recorded on a Dictabelt, and our February episode on the “Frankenbooks” at the Harry Ransom Center.
Subscribe to “Archival Fever” on iTunes, Google Play and Soundcloud, and follow us @ArchivalFever on Twitter and Instagram. Leave us a review in the iTunes store to encourage more listeners to find our show.