brittle paper

Bringing the Past to Life: Conservation & Preservation of Historical Family Documents

Tape removal is executed using solvents during the conservation treatment of a client’s family tree.

Tape removal is executed using solvents during the conservation treatment of a client’s family tree.

The most common paper artifacts that ordinary people save and collect are documents related to their personal family history. Photographs, love letters, marriage and birth certificates that have been passed on from grandparents and great-grandparents are carefully - or not so carefully - saved in albums and drawers of personal mementos. Our ancestors may not have been able to protect them as well as we might wish, and whether through disaster, neglect or simply inherent vice, paper remnants of a family’s history often end up damaged and deteriorated.

Maybe you’re engaged in researching your family’s genealogy. Maybe you want to pass on some treasured items to your children or grandchildren. Maybe you’re simply curious or sentimental about an item that belonged to your great-grandparents. Either way, a conservator can help you restore and preserve these important personal items.

Our studio regularly treats family documents needing repair and restoration. We clean, flatten, repair tears, remove stains, deacidify, and fill and inpaint losses. We offer advice on proper storage conditions to preserve artifacts going forward, and can provide archival housings such as acid-free folders, mylar encapsulation and clamshell boxes for books and bibles.

A Polish birth certificate c.1905, folded, broken, and inaccessible.

A Polish birth certificate c.1905, folded, broken, and inaccessible.

Previous repairs with tape and bandaids have stained the paper fibres.

Previous repairs with tape and bandaids have stained the paper fibres.

This birth certificate, from a family of Polish ancestry, was recently brought in for conservation treatment. The document, over 100 years old, had been stored folded and the brittle paper had broken along the fold lines. It had been repaired in the past with materials close to hand, specifically sellotape and the unusual solution of band-aids! The owner was hesitant even to open the folded document, and consequently couldn’t access the information written inside, the birth and christening dates of her grandmother.

Removing various tapes from the document with scalpel and solvent.

Removing various tapes from the document with scalpel and solvent.

Treatment included humidifying and unfolding the tightly folded package, removing the pressure sensitive adhesive tape and the remaining adhesive residue, and lining the fragments onto a new backing paper in order to create a new full sheet to stabilize the document. Some panels of the document were missing, but luckily the areas with handwritten text were all intact and the client could finally read the information.

Reassembling fragments of the birth certificate before repair by lining.

Reassembling fragments of the birth certificate before repair by lining.

The certificate is lined onto a new sheet, making it safely accessible.

The certificate is lined onto a new sheet, making it safely accessible.

Ancestor photographs often come in for conservation treatment as well. Restoring treasured heirlooms is one of the most satisfying tasks of our daily work, and the feeling of returning a revived photograph to the descendent of it’s owner is wonderful validation for our hard work. The photograph below was the only image one client had of her great-grandmother, but biological damage had affected the emulsion layer of the photograph. Careful stabilization and inpainting restored the image, and the client was pleased to frame it with museum quality materials for display in her home.

Inpainting losses to the emulsion layer of a 19th century photograph.

Inpainting losses to the emulsion layer of a 19th century photograph.

This small notebook belonged to another client’s Polish father, and was brought with him when he immigrated to Canada after serving in the second world war. Her family now happily considers themselves Canadian, but memories of their father’s war experiences are treasured and revered, and this diary serves as a powerful reminder of the struggles he went though to reach safety. Conservation treatment stabilized it and a collection of other documents related to her parent’s immigration, now preserved for the family’s future.

Repairs with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to a Polish immigrant’s notebook.

Repairs with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to a Polish immigrant’s notebook.

A charming item came into the studio just before Christmas this year - a client’s childhood letter to Santa. We’re guessing it was c.1970s, by the request for bellbottoms, and the thoughtful request for a mink coat for her mother is very heartwarming. The letter had great sentimental value for the client, and we were pleased to return it carefully restored as a “christmas miracle” in time for the holidays.

Letter to Santa, before conservation.

Letter to Santa, before conservation.

Letter to Santa, after conservation.

Letter to Santa, after conservation.

Family history documents are one of our specialities at Book and Paper Conservation Services, and we don’t consider any items too small to be deserving of careful conservation and restoration. The stories that come with these artifacts make the work worthwhile, and although the documents may not be of much monetary value, the sentimental worth is incalculable.

Custom archival storage folders made to house family history documents once they have been conserved at our studio.

Custom archival storage folders made to house family history documents once they have been conserved at our studio.

Art Conservator and Book and Paper Conservation Services owner Jennifer Robertson recently spoke to the Ontario Genealogical Society about preservation and conservation of family history documents. The talk was recorded and is available for viewing here. If you are interested in learning more about genealogy and connecting with other passionate family researchers in the London area, the OGS’s Middlesex branch website provides information on their monthly meetings and talks.

This small bible (before conservation treatment), travelled with a client’s father while he was on active duty in WWI. The restoration filled losses and stabilized the book, which was then passed on to her son as a family heirloom.

This small bible (before conservation treatment), travelled with a client’s father while he was on active duty in WWI. The restoration filled losses and stabilized the book, which was then passed on to her son as a family heirloom.

If you are interested in having restoration work done on your family documents or simply have questions on repair or preservation options, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Or, view our portfolio of conservation treatments of Archival Materials for more examples of this type of work.

May your artifacts live safely for many years to come!

Conservation Treatment of a Bird's Eye View of London, 1872 Lithograph Print

Bird's Eye View of London, Ontario, Canada,  1872, before conservation treatment. 

Bird's Eye View of London, Ontario, Canada, 1872, before conservation treatment. 

Book and Paper Conservation Services recently had the privilege of restoring this wonderful early Bird's Eye View map of London, Ontario, Canada. The detailed colour lithograph print, dated 1872, resides in the collection of Western University Archives, which holds extensive records of London's history.  

History

The map is an illustrated vision of the city from a bird's eye perspective, a common theme in the late 19th century. It was drawn by the artist E. S. Glover, and produced by Strobridge Lithographing Company, in Cincinnati, OH.  It would have been distributed in London and purchased by prominent local citizens at the time for display in homes and businesses.

Detail of the 1872 map showing streets of London, Ontario, and the Military Garrison in what is now Victoria Park.

Detail of the 1872 map showing streets of London, Ontario, and the Military Garrison in what is now Victoria Park.

The map illustrates significant buildings in the city as of 1872, such as the Covent Garden Market, Labatt Brewery, and the military garrison, situated on land which is now Victoria Park. The locations are numbered in a key in the bottom margin. The map is extremely interesting as a historic document because it depicts a number of streets and locations which no longer exist or have since been renamed. 

 

 

When it arrived at our studio, the map suffered from a variety of condition issues. After examination and consultation with University Archivist Robin Keirstead at Western's Archives and Research Collections Centre, an extensive treatment protocol was determined. During the course of conservation treatment, the print underwent almost every process in a paper conservator's repertoire; it was an extremely satisfying project for our studio. 

Condition

The map was produced by a lithographic printing process on machine-made wood pulp paper, a typical paper but prone to discolouration over time. Sometime in its life, it had been mounted to a black pulp board backer, a very acidic material which had further contributed to the overall yellowing and brittleness of the paper. It also exhibited pronounced discolouration in vertical bands across the image, as well as extensive tears and breaks in the paper and minor losses around the perimeter.

Tears and losses along the border of the print.

Tears and losses along the border of the print.

Creases and breaks distorting the surface.

Creases and breaks distorting the surface.

In short, it was in urgent need of conservation treatment to keep it from deteriorating further, and to restore its original detail and vibrancy.

Conservation included surface cleaning to remove dirt and grime. 

Conservation included surface cleaning to remove dirt and grime. 

conservation treatment

The conservation treatment to address these damages included several stages. First, the print was surface cleaned to remove loose dirt and grime, and then the acidic backing was painstakingly removed with a scalpel and metal spatula, working from the verso to avoid any accidental damage to the print. 

Next, the print was washed and light bleached to brighten the paper tone. The yellow discolouration products were removed from the paper in this process, returning the image closer to its original colouring and removing the distracting bands of stain from the print. It was also deacidified to halt further deterioration of the cellulose.  

The Bird's Eye View of London is washed and deacidified to remove discolouration.

The Bird's Eye View of London is washed and deacidified to remove discolouration.

Once washed, the lithograph was lined onto a new, stable backing of Japanese paper, to provide support and repair the breaks and losses. This backing will not cause discolouration the way the old board did, and will help the print remain stable while also being slightly flexible.

Wash water becomes progressively less yellow as the print is cleaned. Behind, the washed and lined lithograph is visible brighter. 

Wash water becomes progressively less yellow as the print is cleaned. Behind, the washed and lined lithograph is visible brighter. 

The Bird's Eye View of London, after washing and lining on a stable Japanese paper backing. 

The Bird's Eye View of London, after washing and lining on a stable Japanese paper backing. 

The final step in the conservation treatment was to inpaint losses to the printed image where cracks and breaks had disturbed the surface. Using watercolours and a delicate brush, the image was restored.

Inpainting to restore losses in the printed surface.

Inpainting to restore losses in the printed surface.

The restoration of this beautiful historic artifact was extremely successful, and the satisfying results can be seen below.  The paper tone has been brightened, allowing the image to be viewed without distraction; the damages have been repaired and print is supported and stabilized with a new backing. It has been returned to the Archives where it will be stored and preserved in ideal conditions, and can be accessed by future researchers and interested Londoners for years to come. 

Bird's Eye View of London, Ontario, Canada,  1872, before and after conservation treatment. 

Bird's Eye View of London, Ontario, Canada, 1872, before and after conservation treatment. 

Art conservation is an extremely satisfying occupation, and Book and Paper Conservation Services was very pleased to have contributed to the preservation of this important artifact. If you have historic or archival materials or antique prints that you are interested in having restored, don't hesitate to get in touch with our studio. There is no charge for a consultation, and we are always happy to discuss conservation options with you. 

Art Conservation: Original Sketch by London Artist "Ting"

Conservation of original art on paper is one of our specialties at Book and Paper Conservation Services. This piece, a charcoal sketch by London artist Ting (Merle Tingley, b. 1921) of his trademark character Luke Worm, recently came to our studio for treatment.

Luke Worm  sketch by Merle Tingley, before conservation.

Luke Worm sketch by Merle Tingley, before conservation.

Luke Worm  sketch in raking light, showing creases.

Luke Worm sketch in raking light, showing creases.

 

The sketch dates to the 1960s, and was a gift by the artist to the owner, who met him while touring the London Free Press as a student.

Executed in charcoal on a thin, wood pulp paper, the loosely drawn lines give a lively and charming quality to the character of the worm.

 

The paper had been stored folded into multiple panels for many years; creases disfigured the page, and the charcoal media had transferred to the bare paper opposite the design.

Ting sketch after surface cleaning.

Ting sketch after surface cleaning.

The paper was surface cleaned to remove the transferred charcoal media, with care taken not to disturb any of the original media. It was then humidified to relax the creases and flattened under weight. Finally, several small tears were repaired with Japanese tissue.

Luke Worm  by Merle Tingley, after conservation treatment. The work was framed in acid-free materials and UV filtering glass. 

Luke Worm by Merle Tingley, after conservation treatment. The work was framed in acid-free materials and UV filtering glass. 

The sketch was framed for display in acid-free materials, with UV filtering glass. It is now safely preserved, and will be enjoyed for many years to come.

Check out our other treatments of fine art on paper, or get in touch if you have questions about having works of art conserved.