'Not all that glitters is gold' - metallic pigments in a Victorian scrapbook

By Leah Humenuck, Conservation Studies, specialising in Books and Library Materials

One of the items I treated this year was a late 19th Century Victorian scrapbook. The scrapbook was made for a child and the contents directly reflect this. It was filled with clippings from magazines, stickers, poems that referenced children stories, animals, and other imagery which might have appealed to a child at the time. Additionally, it was filled with elaborate, original artwork by the woman who created it.

As I examined the pages, I saw something with which I was both familiar and unfamiliar. Metallic-looking stickers. As someone who grew up with shiny, metallic-looking stickers placed upon notebooks and most surfaces between the ages of 4 and 15 years, I knew that these immediately had a childlike appeal.

As a conservator who observes the materiality and history of items, my first thought was "I want to know precisely what this is." I observed that some of it seemed to have discolored, was lost, or showed signs of corrosion. If this was a material that was delicate or reactive to something in the book, I wanted to inform my conservation decisions. I investigated the conservation report created by a former student (I am the second student to take on this item for treatment). In it, it was a picture of one of the metallic decorations, but the caption below read "unknown material".

Understanding the boom in printing technology during the 19th century, I began to consider the types of metals available and how they could have been adapted. I formed a hypothesis that copper was possibly involved to form the warmer, gold tones and perhaps pewter, an alloy once made from tin and lead, for the cooler, silver tones. Searching throughout publications, I looked for peer-reviewed articles and books regarding metallic stickers or ephemera production during the Victorian era. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a resource which gave insight into them. (If someone reading has information regarding metallic pigments in the 19th century, please contact me below).

Considering I was looking for materials which are metals, I knew there was a scientific instrument that could provide data on precisely what metals were present, X-ray fluorescent (XRF) spectrophotometer In brief, XRF is a type of analysis which is able to identify the presence of certain elements in a material, without having to invasively extract a sample from the item. The benefits of West Dean's instrument are the portability and user-friendly operation.

Thirteen pages with various metallic stickers were surveyed, as well as the tooled cover of the album.

Particularly, I was looking for indications of copper in the golden tones and lead in the silver tones. These would have been common metals and easily available and possibly manipulated by the rise in technology during this time.

For the majority of the golden toned stickers, copper was identified as the prominent colorant element. There is the possibility of the pigment being a copper alloy, such as brass, due to the presence of zinc in most of readings. The silver toned stickers contained lead as the prominent colorant element.

The above XRF peak spectra is from one of the golden toned stickers in the album. Copper (Cu) labeled in blue, is noticeably prominent among the other elements detected, which included zinc (Zn) labeled in green.

Knowing that there are metallic copper pigments inside the book that have started to discolor (or more precisely, corrode), allows me to inform the client about what the original condition and vibrancy of the pages might have been. The current dull browns would have been warm reflective tones that would have added a unique aesthetic quality.

With regards to treatment, I visually analyzed the stickers and none showed signs of active corrosion. Since beginning this study, I would like to pursue further research into metallic pigments and possible treatment of them to inhibit prevent further corrosion.