The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 5
Aug 1990


Oh, That Delightful Smell of Moldy Books

100 Years Ago in the British Museum

The June Scientific American carried this sentimental item, reprinted from its June 1890 issue:

"Visitors to the British Museum frequently have a hard time getting 'acclimated' to the place. An hour spent in the rooms invariably gives the first-time visitor a headache. This curious malady is said to arise from the peculiar odor created by the storage of so many books. You can get same idea of what this odor is by going to your book case, that has been closed for twenty-four hours, and opening one of the doors; immediately your olfactories will be greeted by the mustiest fragrance imaginable. Bibliomaniacs profess to love this odor, and many declare that they cannot value a book unless it has about it that unmistakable and ineradicable smell which infects a volume when once it has crossed the sea in the hold of a vessel."

One component of that fragrance had to be the gases given off by deteriorating paper made with groundwood pulp, which had been used in increasing quantities in books for the previous 30 years.

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