Flag conservation

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How do you know? Dating a War of 1812 sash.

by Nicolette Cook, SAC Conservation Team

A red silk sash, presumably from the War of 1812, recently came through the studio to be treated for an upcoming museum exhibit. While working with this amazing artifact my interest was peaked. I have seen several sashes from the Civil War, but few that have survived from this early conflict. A good question to ask is: how can you tell that this particular sash is from the War of 1812? To recap history in the simplest of terms, the United States declared war on Great Britain over numerous violations involving trade with France, their impressment of American merchant sailors, as well as providing military support to the Native Americans fighting against American expansionism. When the war broke out, both sides received support from regimental and militia units formed in Canada. This is significant because the sashes extent from this period were worn by officers who participated in the Great Lakes and Western Territories campaign and are held by institutions around the Ontario, Canada and Niagara Falls/Buffalo, NY areas, including the Niagara Falls Historical Society and Museum and the Buffalo History Museum (BHM).

War of 1812 sash, dating of an artifact, collection care, Buffalo History Museum, art conservator, textile conservation
Silk sash worn by Lt. Col. Seymour Boughton during
the War of 1812, Buffalo History Museum.

According to BHM, the sash was worn by Lieutenant-Colonel Seymour Boughton. Fighting against the British, he commanded 129 men of the 12th Regiment Cavalry, 1st Brigade for Ontario County during the War of 1812.  Lt Col Boughton was from the town of Avon in Ontario County and he died December 30th, 1813 in the Battle of Buffalo, also known as the Battle of Black Rock.

This particular sash, though not ornate, does feature a very interesting weave structure known as "sprang."

Sprang weave detail from War of 1812 sash, Art conservator, historic textiles, museum collection, Buffalo History Museum
Detail of sprang weave from Boughton's sash.

This technique features warp strands (the longitudinal threads of a textile) fixed at both ends on a loom, which are then twisted or interlaced together. The weave is begun at one end of the warp, while the same pattern is produced simultaneously at the opposite end. The weave is then tightened and held in place with sticks or rods. In this way the work progresses until the weave meets itself in the middle of the resulting fabric. Another aspect of sprang is either a small number, or the complete absence, of weft strands (the transverse threads of a textile). Unlike most woven textiles, an artifact with this sprang weave structure is very elastic in nature allowing the fabric to stretch around unusual shapes such as hair buns, knees and elbows. Interestingly, the oldest extant example of sprang weaving can be dated back to 1400 BC with a hairnet from Borum Eshøj, Denmark. Other early examples are also found in South America dating to 900 AD.

Bronze Age hairnet done in sprang technique from Borum
Eshøj, Denmark, c.1400BC, National Museum, Copenhagen

To get back to the original question, what is the evidence that this sash is from the War of 1812 and not from the Civil War for example? It is not unusual to use the same style of garment for a number of years, thus it makes dating such items to a specifically narrow time period very difficult. Without the crucial information about the officer who originally wore the garment, there is not much to help determine the exact era of origin. Really the only way to know with any certainty is to compare this sash with others known to be from the same time period. First, in order to rule out that we do not have a Civil War sash, we have to examine the evidence. Luckily we have a significant amount of photographic documentation of Civil War military dress. It was in 1839 when Louis Jaques Mandé Daguerre refined his photographic process and developed the first daguerreotype. It involved exposing a copper plate coated with a thin layer of light sensitive silver. After exposure for several minutes the image was fixed in a sodium solution bath. The process came to America soon after it’s invention and a vast number of images were created chronicling everyday people as well as soldiers who participated in the Civil War. Below, one such image of Captain James Thomas Bussy shows the style of sash he wore as part of his Civil War uniform.

Daguerrotype of Captain James Thomas Bussey, who led Co. H. 2nd Maryland Infantry,
wearing a waist sash.  Dave Mark Collection.

From what I've seen of Civil War era sashes in text, photos and from previous projects I've worked on, there is one distinct difference apparent right away - the tassel. Of the few examples that I've seen of War of 1812 sashes, the warp threads are woven closely together to tie off the sprang weave structure, then are twisted together to form the fringe. Consequently the body of the garment and the fringe are one continuous piece. Unlike Lt. Col. Boughton's sash, the warp threads of Civil War era sashes do not form the tassel.  Here the structure of the tassel consists of an acorn mould, a collar, and a fringe skirt. Capt. Bussey’s tassel, compared to Lt. Col. Boughton’s, exhibits a more complicated structure that is common to all Civil War sashes. This can be seen in several surviving images that are too numerous to reproduce here. Seen in the example below, the Civil War tassel is separate structure to which the sash is attached. If that is not convincing, take a look at the fading present on the Major Teed's sash compared to that of the unknown officer, or Lt. Col. Boughton's above. As a sash is worn the tassel receives the most wear and the most exposure to light. The 1812 tassels are not faded while that of the Civil War is significantly so.

Then we must look at the weave structure. As already stated, the sash I treated from BHM, similar to the sash from Niagara Falls History Museum, features a sprang weave structure. While sashes from the Civil War era were constructed using a plain weave technique, which involves each warp or weft passing over one thread then under the next. This difference in weave structure is common, and thus indicative that in fact the BHM sash can be dated to military dress during the War of 1812.

Detail of tassel and weave structure from a War of 1812 sash, officer unknown, Niagara Falls History Museum

Detail of tassel and weave structure of a sash worn by Major William Teed,
8th Missouri Cavalry, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield; WICR 30230  
The evidence is few due to the simplicity of the garments, but drastic enough to be convincing.  The difference in weave structure and tassel construction are important pieces of information that distinguish the sashes and indicate that they were worn during different conflicts. I believe that the documentation present in the daguerreotypes taken during the Civil War is probably the best evidence we have to prove that the sash from BHM and others like it are from the War of 1812. The BHM artifact does not resemble these documented sashes in the slightest, and thus cannot be mistaken for a Civil War item. Take these images into consideration, along with the physical characteristics and corresponding information/ evidence of who wore the particular garments, and no doubt is left in my mind that we can confidently date Lt. Col. Boughton’s sash to the War of 1812.
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.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The "After" Life of an Enormously Large Basket and its Lid

Our story begins with this large box, a box that clearly has seen better days. It was covered with old, peeling, tape and rested on a wooden pallet in the middle of a climatized warehouse. What was inside? That was the question, and to make it all the more mysterious, when the box was mentioned, it was always spoken about in a hush voice, as if we were afraid the box would know we were asking about it.

This box of mystery is owned by the Department of Interior, and it was part of a larger project to rehouse over 800 baskets in the collection. When we saw this box, we had no idea what was inside, and little did we know what we would find.

The very large cardboard box.

When the lid was finally pried off and the tape released, all that could be seen was the lid to a preposterously large basket. The lid seemed lost as clearly there was damage. A rim somewhere was broken, and was now just resting on the lid. The basket below was wrapped and appeared protected. Perhaps too protected, as no one had any idea what it was and it had never been unwrapped during a time when any present DOI staff member could remember!

Finally, it was time to see what we had. The box was carefully brought into the workspace and the outer cardboard walls and layers of wrapping materials were removed. The lid of the basket was lifted, to find that the entire basket was full of polyester batting!  

Tohono basket in the conservation lab for rehousing and support by art conservators. Shaun Pekar assists.conservation studio, lab, Native American basket, Tohono basket, museum collection care

What we found was a wonderfully preserved coil construction basket with slightly tapering sides, covered with images of several birds within a diamond lattice design. The birds were depicted as flying or swimming, and some with wings raised. The records showed that it was believed to be a Tohono O'odham basket, possibly made with yucca, Devil's claw and cattails. If you are not familiar with the Tohono O'odham, they are a people of the desert southwest, living in an area at the southern border of Arizona.  Tohono O'odham means "desert people" in their language, and they are well-known for their contemporary coiled basketry.

Tohono O'ogham basket, art conservation, archival support, museum collection care
One of the many birds.

The materials used to construct the basket were in good shape, however, it is the shape and overall weight of the basket was not helping it. The lower third of the basket was buckling under its own weight, and in a matter of time, tears and weak areas were going to develop. Certainly from the photos you can see this basket is incredibly large, to be specific it was 91" tall and 84" around at its largest point.

Tohono basket repair, Native American basket, art conservation, laboratory, historic, archival storage

Like all the other baskets treated in this collection, it (and its lid) was vacuumed, both inside and out. And then we had to address the most pressing issue, how to support the weakening base? It was, after all, the inherant-vice of the weight of the basket that was causing the bulges to appear. The flaring shape just was not conducive of its size and weight.

Lid of Tohono basket, art conservation of Native American artifacts, laboratory
The loose band of coiling was found to be part of the lid's
 internal rim. It was determined to keep the rim with the lid
but not reattacted.

Supporting the lower sides, both inside and outside, was the decision made and was no easy feat when tackling such a large artifact. What was decided was to produce a "girdle" of sorts. The girdle would wrap around the outer surface, while internal braces were positioned inside. Below are images of the various steps.

Art conservators working on historic Native American Basket, collection care, archival support
Blue board was scored at even intervals. Here Shaun and
Toosie are positioning the boards.
The measured boards were secured and lined
with Ethafoam sheeting.
Shaun and Ron Harvey doing final adjustments.
The ends were trimmed diagonally for a snug fit.
internal braces created by art conservators caring for the basket collection of historic Native American pieces. Tohono basket
Internal supports that braced the interior sides.
Large Tohono basket in Native American collection of the US Department of the Interior, custom made support and storage created by Art Conservators
Shaun adjusting the securing outer straps.
Native American basket, Tohono, museum collection care, art conservation, after treatment image
The rehoused, and now fully supported basket!

The basket along with the batting that was inside.

The basket is still a mystery in that we are not sure what it was specifically made for, when exactly it was made, or even if it was made by a Tohono O'odham member. The Tohono O'odham are possibly the largest seller of Native baskets, so they not only produced the baskets for traditional utilitarian purposes, they also made them for ritual uses and to sell to tourists. A basket of this size is not typical, so I wonder was it made for collecting a lot of beans? Or perhaps a huge laundry hamper for a family with a bunch of kids? Or perhaps it is so unique because it was made for a ritual or particular occasion, if so, what was its purpose?
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.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The conservation of a LIBERTY flag

By Gwen Spicer and Barbara Owens

237 years of freedom and independence. Each year at this time I am in awe of our forefathers, not just the famous ones, I mean the farmers and tailors, the blacksmiths, the coopers, and the like. These are the men who were not among the influential, yet these are the colonists who made the revolution for independence not only happen, but be successful in the face of what seemed to be certain failure.
Broadside calling the Sons of Liberty to meet.

The Sons of Liberty were composed of these very men. Their story begins with Liberty groups springing up all over the colonies originally in opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765, and then in growing opposition to other unfair taxes (tea, intolerable, etc) that were being imposed onto the colonies without their consent as they had no representation in Parliament - hence, the iconic phrase: "No Taxation Without Representation".

You cannot mention the Sons of Liberty without reference to the Liberty Poles. The Sons of Liberty would meet under a large tree in town. The British would order the tree cut down, and the Sons of Liberty would erect a pole in its place. And each time the poles were ordered cut down, they were  replaced with a bigger pole, a thicker pole, or poles covered in iron or spikes. Do you get the idea that these are some incredibly stubborn colonists?

Now to the top of the Liberty Poles, where you would begin to find one of the earliest flags to unite the colonists - The Liberty Flag. These Liberty Flags are the flags which first stood simply for, what else?  Why, Liberty of course! The idea behind the flag is that the colonies were united in their belief that they could not be subject to British taxes being levied on the colonies alone, and not give colonists representation in Parliament. These particular flags were as simple as the message - a solid background, probably red, but many were blue, with white letters of silk ribbon spelling out "LIBERTY" in capital letters. Other Liberty flags have 9 vertical red and white stripes representing the nine colonies (1765), and some have the image of the snake cut into nine parts. And even others depict a solitary great tree.
(See images below)

In true early American style, there was no rule for the design of these flags, and I suppose for the colonists the message was more important than what it was written on. I love that these flags were not respected by the English. Written records exist that indicate when a flag of this kind was captured or cut down from a liberty pole, English soldiers would mock the flag as there were no two alike and that they looked like they were made from draperies or perhaps an old ball gown. How fabulous is that!? The flags did not merit their respect, but wherever they went in the colonies, these flags were there. While that probably should have been a "red flag" to the British soldiers that colonist throughout were woefully dissatisfied and were uniting under a single message, the colonist continued to be underestimated.

If I have not mentioned before, Spicer Art Conservation has carved out a wonderful niche in that we have the honor of treating a tremendous amount of flags, some of which are the most notable symbols from our nations history. I cannot tell you how exciting it is to be invited to treat these legendary artifacts, other than to say each time it is obvious how special these flags are. I completely understand how vexillologists and avid collectors are as passionate as they are.

Liberty Flag in Schenectady New York, conserved, mounted and frames by historic flag expert Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, pre Revolutionary war flag, sons of Liberty
On display at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Photo of the flag outside the home of Nicholas Veeder who is reported to have carried the flag in the Battle of Saratoga. Veeder lived to be 101 and it is said he kept the flag all those years, bringing it out only on July 4th to march with it in the Schenectady parade.

I have treated revolutionary war flags, but perhaps the oldest flag I have ever treated is the pre-revolutionary "Liberty Flag" from the Schenectady Historical Society. There is no absolute date for the manufacture of this flag, but as they appeared just after the stamp act of 1765, I think it is safe to say this is the oldest I've treated. As far as I am aware this is the only Liberty flag left from the pre-revolution days of the Sons of Liberty. The Liberty Flag survived only because it was carefully and lovingly kept by a family for many years. Not a unique story in that any of the flags that have survived through history have a similar background - they are  given a place of honor, they are carefully kept and brought out only on very special occasions, therefore limiting their exposure to light and excessive handling.
After the conservation of the Liberty flag, permanent housing of the flag was designed by Gwen Spicer, art conservator to limit the amount of light exposure the textile received.
Here is the home of the Liberty Flag today. The flag is kept
under protective cover to  limit its exposure to light.

As you can see from the photos, the Liberty Flag has areas where very little of the fabric is left. I have read that this is because the family who held the flag received a request to have the flag displayed at a fair in the 1800s (I do not have a lot of details). However, the flag, was not so much displayed as it was run up a pole and allowed to flap in the wind and cook in the sun - OH NO!  No wonder the lower fly edge is so shredded. I wonder what condition it would be in if that had not happen.

Each time I treat an American Flag, it says a great deal about the time in history it was made. The number of stars of course is the most indicative factor to determining it's historical timeframe. And sometimes those stars are scattered across the canton in great designs. And the various fabrics, the lindsay-woolsey, silk, cotton; and the sewing styles - machine or hand, each lends a hint to when the flags were being constructed.

For me the Liberty Flag is the enduring symbol of independence. It is a symbol of revolution at its finest and it is a testament to the underdog. I also love that the United States has such an interesting history of flags that have represented our nation. So many colors and styles and designs, each of them similar, yet different, but each a statement of how fiercely independent we are as a people.

Read more about the Liberty Flag in this great blog: http://gremsdoolittlelibrary.blogspot.com/2012/01/liberty-flag-in-schenectady.html

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.