historic materials

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 of P. T. Barnum Circus Posters, featuring Jumbo the Elephant

The variety of paper-based objects that come through the Book and Paper Conservation Services studio never ceases to amaze us! This set of P. T. Barnum Circus posters circa 1883 is one of the most unique artifacts we've worked on.

P. T. Barnum Circus posters displayed in the Elgin County Museum, before conservation treatment.

P. T. Barnum Circus posters displayed in the Elgin County Museum, before conservation treatment.

Part of the collections of the Elgin County Museum in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, the posters advertise the P. T. Barnum Circus performance in St. Thomas on July 26, 1883; notably, the posters feature Jumbo the Elephant, the famed pachyderm who would later be killed after another appearance in St. Thomas in 1885.

Anyone familiar with St. Thomas and Elgin County, Ontario, knows Jumbo's importance to the community. The story of the elephant's tragic death in a train collision is one of the greatest legends of the town, and features prominently in the area's tourism. Jumbo has inspired a life-sized monument on Talbot Street, a brand of craft beer, and of course a permanent collection of objects in the Elgin County Museum.

P.T. Barnum Circus posters featuring Jumbo the Elephant, before conservation treatment.

P.T. Barnum Circus posters featuring Jumbo the Elephant, before conservation treatment.

This set of posters was donated by a member of the community after it was found inside the structure of a building undergoing renovation in 1983; the posters were on the underside of the boards, and so were hidden until revealed by construction. The remnants of the posters were still mounted on the boards, originally a fence or barn wall, on which they were first displayed to advertise the circus's visit. However, the fragments had suffered from the ravages of time, pests, mould and dampness since being reused in the floor of the building. 

Biological damage and surface mould on the delicate paper.

Biological damage and surface mould on the delicate paper.

The Museum felt that the historical integrity of the artifact was best served by keeping the poster fragments in place on the original boards, recalling the way the posters would have been viewed originally, while also acknowledging the unique circumstances of their preservation and discovery.  

We determined a treatment protocol that would clean and secure the delicate paper in place on the boards, as well as provide some protection from the handling and exposure that the piece will inevitably receive while on display. 

Surface cleaning the poster fragments.

Surface cleaning the poster fragments.

Reinforcing lifted edges.

Reinforcing lifted edges.

First, the paper and exposed board surfaces were gently surface cleaned to remove a thick layer of dirt, grime and biological material. The undersides of lifting paper fragments were also cleaned, where large deposits of debris had collected with time. Then, crumbling edges overhanging the edges of individual boards were reinforced with Japanese paper to provide strength and deter further damage. 

Protective coating applied to the delicate paper surface.

Protective coating applied to the delicate paper surface.

The coating also serves to re-saturate the printed colours and paper tone: the top half of AT has been coated, the bottom half has not.

The coating also serves to re-saturate the printed colours and paper tone: the top half of AT has been coated, the bottom half has not.

The lifting fragments of paper were secured back down onto the boards with a strong but reversible acid-free adhesive, and the surface of the delicate paper was coated with a cellulose ether solution to strengthen and protect the delicate paper. The coating also served to re-saturate the printed colours and paper tone, bringing back more of the original vibrancy of the image.

Detail of posters before conservation.

Detail of posters before conservation.

Detail of posters after conservation.

Detail of posters after conservation.

Detail of posters before conservation.

Detail of posters before conservation.

Detail of posters after conservation.

Detail of posters after conservation.

Detail of posters before conservation.

Detail of posters before conservation.

Detail of posters after conservation.

Detail of posters after conservation.

You can see in the after treatment details that the posters have been stabilized and rejuvenated on the boards, allowing better appreciation of their historical importance. They can now be safely handled and displayed without risking further damage to the fragile materials.

P.T. Barnum Circus Posters - Jumbo Elephant - after conservation

The posters have been returned to the Elgin County Museum where they will be back on display shortly. 

As a testament to the enduring interest in Jumbo's story, two upcoming television programs will investigate the legend of the famous elephant, perhaps revealing new information about his life and death. David Suzuki's CBC program The Nature of Things will air an episode dedicated to Jumbo sometime in 2018; David Attenborough has also visited St. Thomas to research an upcoming feature about Jumbo.

David Suzuki explores famous elephant's life

Visit the Elgin County Museum this fall to see the restored P. T. Barnum Circus posters featuring Jumbo the Elephant, and stay tuned for the upcoming television specials. The Museum plans to mount another exhibition on Jumbo's life and legacy in St. Thomas to coincide with the renewed interest next spring!

Do you have archival materials - posters, photographs, documents, etc - that you are interested in having restored? Contact Book and Paper Conservation Services today to discuss conservation treatment of your objects, or check out our portfolio section to see other projects we've worked on.