Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Textile Conservation of the Brandywine Flag

by Barbara Owens
Happy Independence Day!

The year is 1777, fourteen months have past since the Declaration of Independence was signed and the colonists fight for their freedom in America’s first great war.  The British have set out to capture Philadelphia.  Washington’s best defense against General Howe and the advancing British army lies at Brandywine Creek, approximately 25 miles southwest of the city.  Washington has strategically positioned his troops at vital crossings along the creek, choosing high ground at Chadd's Ford as his primary defensive position.

On September 11, General Howe pretended to launch an attack at Chadd's Ford, but in fact, the majority of his army had crossed the Brandywine farther north, surprising the Americans with an attack to their right flank.  Howe's strategy works and Washington orders a retreat, but the Continental Army remains intact.  The British take Philadelphia, but the rest, they say, is history. 

The Brandywine Flag, reportedly flown during this historic battle, was a banner carried by Captain Robert Wilson's company of the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment.  The company flag received the name after it was used in the Battle of Brandywine.  The flag is red, with a red and white American flag image in the canton.
Art conservation of the Brandywine Flag by textile conservator Gwen Spicer, historic flags, Revolutionary War, repair and restoration
Brandywine Flag 
Washington's coat-of-arms
As any good vexillologist will tell you, the 7th Pennsylvania Flag may have been one of the first American flags to feature stars and stripes.  It has been referred to as a flag within a flag or a canton within a canton.  Specifically, the flag shown in the canton of the Brandywine Flag uses a 4-5-4 star pattern.  As it is composed only of red and white, perhaps this was to reflect Washington's own coat of arms?

Canton of the Brandywine Flag, art conservation of historic textiles flags and banners
Close up of Brandywine canton
About 13 years ago, Spicer Art Conservation had the opportunity to perform the textile conservation of this very flag, and what an honor it was.  There is really something magical about an artifact that comes from a time period that defined the beginnings of what was to become the United States of America.  Flags of this era (and other wartime flags) are nearly always hand-sewn.  They exude pride.  These flags were made by wives and mothers who were sending their men into battle.  The men carrying them were not expected to come back, however the hope of their return was undying.

The flag survives today and is housed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where it will likely never be displayed again.  Why?  Light damage.  For 30+ years the Brandywine flag sat sandwiched in a display case with fluorescent lights imbedded into the frame.  These lights blasted the flag from two sides, in what is referred to as "raking light damage".  Imagine that the flag is not just being exposed to light from the front, but the light is intentionally directed to its surface horizontally from both the left and right.  This type of damage effectively cooked the Brandywine Flag to an irreparable state.  Light of this nature does not just fade colors, it chemically changes the material itself.  In this case, the Brandywine Flag is made of a plain balanced silk.  It is not terribly thick and the weave is not super tight, and silk, when exposed to unrelenting light, goes from being supple to becoming still flexible, but if touched, turns to a fine powder.  And so, while this piece of history lives on, it must survive in storage.

Treatment of this flag was a slow and delicate process.  The flag had been encapsulated between two layers of silk and was mounted on wool (can you say bug infestation?) with a fine filament line.   The wool and silk would have been a perfect feeding ground for a variety of insects, however, while the display box and its constant light caused damage, possibly it was this very box that kept the bugs at bay and saved the flag from being eaten by insects. 

This begs the question: Did the curators and conservators of thirty years past think they were doing anything that was damaging to this artifact?  Certainly not.  But in hindsight, they chose to display this flag in a way that was profoundly destructive.  Looking back through the history of textile conservation and the various methods in which textiles have been displayed, one can not help but wonder if the methods we are using now will be considered detrimental in the decades that follow?

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

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