Flag conservation

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

Friday, June 21, 2013

The conservation of textiles or objects often begins with dirt, dirt, and more dirt

by Gwen Spicer

At the end of the day, does your collection of swabs look like this?

conservators tools, cleaning artifacts, embedded dirt in collections, antiques, antiquities and heirlooms,

Much of the work that conservators perform on collections is removing surface dirt. Either mechanically with swabs, picks, or brushes; or capturing with vacuums. Much of this dirt has been accumulating while the artifact has been at the museum (often called "museum dirt") and is not the dirt that is associated with use or historical significance.

Summer begins today and with it comes a very busy time at historic homes and museums. Smaller institutions with a limited open season see all of their visitors in this short time before they close down again for the cold months of winter. So what kind of effect does this quick and short influx of visitors  have on these places? The answer is that the extra traffic can have a profound impact, but if great care is taken to monitor for dust and dirt, then that impact can be made minimal. This is true not just for the small institution, but for the large institution as well where visitors are seen year-round.
antique wooden travel chest, museum collection care, art conservator needed
This chest is covered in animal hair, but along with it, is dust, (lots of it) and closer inspection reveals insect and water damage.  Prevention could have made a substantial difference here.

Common dust components can be anything from soil, soot or insects (that perhaps you would expect to find), to the hair and skin particles from humans or animals, to the paint or plaster from a home, or could be things like particles of paper, food, fiber, or heaven forbid - mold. Dust is bad enough by itself, and this is nothing new as Susannah Whatman, in her iconic housekeeping book of 1776, so aptly indicated when she said, "Places where dust lodges should be attended to. Otherwise, if left too long, it takes a long time and much labor to get it off". Is there something worse than leaving dust undisturbed for too long? Yes, and it is a simple and deadly equation: Dust + Humidity = "dirt cement" = hard or damaging to remove. This is why a favorite saying in conservation is: "Prevention is better than cure".

Sticky samples to the rescue! Simple prevention does not get simpler than this. Sticky samples collect and show the evidence of what is in the environment. Most importantly they indicate how often an area needs to be cleaned. It should be of no great surprise that when the samples below were examined, the samples farthest from the visitor "rope" showed less dust pollutants. The moral of the story here is to put the objects you want to clean less, farther away from the traffic flow. Another interesting tidbit is that the samples at the beginning of the tour have much more dust than the sticky samples at the end of the tour.  Of even further interest is that the sticky samples on the floor have far more dust collected than the samples on a table or up even higher. In fact 4 feet from the ground is the magic number. Here is the least "dusty" space.  However, move up above the average person's eye-level and things start getting dusty again.  This makes sense - when was the last time you looked at the top of your refrigerator?

The white squares indicate where tested, at regular intervals from the path of a visitor (the red rope is the limit of the visitors contact)

Is seems that there is a fine line between a historic institution having the right amount of dust (i.e. what is acceptable to the visitor vs. what comes off as making the institution look "uncared" for.) As conservators, curators, and archivists, we have all studied patterns of dirt and soiling migrations within environments. And as one might suspect, it is mainly the visitors themselves who bring the dirt and soiling into museums and historic homes. Folks like Mr. Peter Brimblecombe of the University of East Anglia, UK and others who have studied and monitored such things are able to provide us with the knowledge of how the movement and deposition of dirt and particulates damages historic homes, museums, archives and libraries.

But could there be a time when this is not the case? And a conservator's first step of treatment will not be surface cleaning or vacuuming?

Homes, work space, and other public spaces are all becoming more and more clean. Modern building construction is tighter to be more energy efficient. Windows are not made to open in some buildings because a HVAC system is in place, and these systems are equipped with sophisticated filters, able to wisk the air clean of particles and debris to the micron level.  Society itself has become more concerned than ever before with hygiene. There are biological antiseptic hand wipes, washes, and cleaners, all to keep our environments clean and germ free. Plus there are improved vacuum cleaners with fine particulate filters like HEPA and speed regulation.

art conservator gentle vacuum with low suction power

How is this going to effect a conservator's work in the future? Could it be that vacuuming as a first step not be needed? What do you think?

Notes: Housekeeping is one of my favorite topics and more will come, but it is impossible to talk about dust in its entirety in a brief blog post. If you want to read some wonderful articles, please visit Professor Peter Brimblecombe's web page where you will find links to his mountains of publications about dust, historical places and the environmental factors that can cause damage. He may be more passionate about housekeeping than I am!
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.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The conservation of a Betsy Ross flag

by Gwen Spicer

Not long ago this small and sweet flag came into the studio. I have read about these but had never had the opportunity to treat one. Often referred to as "Gift Flags" these were very small hand-sewn silk flags. This particular flag measure 5 5/8" H x 9 5/8" W, others were similarly sized. The flags are typically attributed to Betsy Ross' granddaughter or great-granddaughter. This particular one has been nicely labeled and we know (from the two inscriptions that are present on the hoist) that it was: "Made by Sarah M. Wilson, Great-granddaughter of Betsy Ross" which is printed on the obverse side, and "East Wing of Independence Hall. Phila. November 21st 1908" which is printed on the reverse side.  

Betsy Ross Gift flag, repair, framing, mounting of historical flags by Flag conservator Gwen Spicer
Obverse-side of the small silk flag

Many of these small flags were sold by Ross's descendants, and can be found in other collections. These flags are mentioned as being made by either Sarah Wilson or Rachel Albright (Albright being the granddaughter of Ross) and were sold as souvenirs from the East Wing of Independence Hall. It also appears that some of these flags were also given to larger contributors to the Betsy Ross Association, which was an organization to preserve the house which was believed to be inhabited by Ross when she sewed the First American Flag (more about that below).  

Betsy Ross gift flag, flag conservator, repair, mounting and conservation of historic flags
Reverse-side of the flag

The Betsy Ross story is probably one of the most heavily (and heatedly) debated legends. Volumes have been written, and both sides of the argument have valid points. But one thing that is not disputable is that Betsy Ross was a flag maker (if not THE flag maker) and a great legend has grown around her. My guess is that we will never know without a doubt if she did sew the first flag.  

Betsy ross gift flag, conservation of historic flags, 13 star flag, flag conservator, textile
Detail of the obverse-side of the hoist

The "ring of star" or 13 five-pointed stars found on the canton is considered the Betsy Ross pattern.  

It has been proposed that perhaps the only reason we know about Betsy Ross is that her grandson, William Canby, was a great promoter. He appeared before the Historical Society in Philadelphia in 1877 to announce his grandmother's contribution to history, his proof was in the form of signed affidavits from Ross' daughter, granddaughter and niece. But no other evidence exists to prove that what they swore was totally true, slightly embellished, or completely fabricated.

We have all heard the story; Betsy Ross sits in her shop on Arch Street in Philadelphia, surrounded by the girls who do needlework for her, when in through the door walks George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross (two members of the Continental Congress). They show her what they think the flag should look like, Betsy makes some suggestions, most importantly the use of a 5-pointed star, rather that than a six-pointed, and she shows the gentlemen how to make one with a particularly folded cloth and a snip of the scissors. The men take their leave and Betsy gets busy sewing the flag with the iconic circle of 13 stars.

239 Arch Street, which was originally 89 Arch Street, aka "The Betsy Ross Flag House" - shown left in 2012 and right,  c. 1900. No one is sure if Betsy Ross really lived here (it could have been the house next door) as she and her husbands always rented, to further muddle the mystery the house numbers in Philadelphia have changed over the years.

Weisgerber's painting.

To further the legend, Charles Weisgerber, an amateur painter, enters a contest to portray a historical Philadelphia event (see his painting above). He creates a purely fictional scene for the painting which he titles: "Birth of our Nation's Flag". Interesting to note that the painter and another gentleman purchased the Betsy Ross House and created the Betsy Ross Memorial Association. The two men would be later accused of financial impropriety for selling "subscriptions" to the association (the association saw little of the funds). The association tried to rid themselves of the house as it was now surrounded in accusations of faulty morality and historians were beginning to cast serious doubt to the Betsy Ross legend. The men tried to sell the house to the federal government and then the City of Philadelphia, both refused due to disputes of the homes authenticity. Weisgerber moved to Washington DC where he devised a similar scheme to solicit funds to restore the home of Francis Scott Key.  Weisgerber returns to Philly after this scheme fails and tries to resurrect interest in the Ross house. The house is finally donated to the City of Philadelphia in 1937 with the condition they excuse 30 years of unpaid taxes. Since that time, the house was refurbished and returned to its 1776 style and continues to remain home to legend of Betsy Ross.

Who can resist this calendar?

Charles H. Weisgerber's painting Birth of Our Nation's Flag as depicted on a stamp. It was
awarded the first prize of one thousand dollars in a 1893 City of Philadelphia competition.

So many websites, articles and books condemn the Betsy Ross story as just that, a story. Read more about the house and the debate here: http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/prove239.html  Another great article can be found here: http://www.nava.org/documents/raven/vol12/NAVA_Raven_v12_2005_p087-099.pdf, this last article however, approaches it from a different point of view and provides a fun diagram of how to cut Betsy's star - you should try it, because it is nothing if not fun. And the next time you see one of these sweet little flags you will know just what it is and the story behind it.

So, what do you think?  Fact or fiction, did Betsy Ross sew the first flag?

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.