Flag conservation

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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wha does a date mean when found on a artifact?

by Nicolette Cook, with Barbara Owens, SAC staff

What does a date mean when it is found on an artifact? It could be the date when the work was completed, or it could also be a commemorative or anniversary date of a particular event. Dates and what they "really" mean was a recent topic of discussion at the Spicer Art Conservation studio when we received an interesting 19th Century Chapeau de Bras dated "1812".

War of 1812, Chapeau, art conservation, repair, dating of artifacts and antiques
The front of Buffalo History Museum's Chapeau de bras featuring ribbon detail and brocade work.

On objects such as prints, paintings, embroideries, and samplers, if a date is present it typically represents the date when the work was completed. But with commemorative items, that certainty is not the case. One example that most people are familiar with is the specially minted commemorative coin. These coins are often re-struck at a later date but bear the date of the event they are commemorating. In some cases the coins are engraved with the event they are celebrating, but in other cases they are simply a copy of an original historic coin. So, it begs the question, if the item is an old reproduction, how can we tell it is in fact a reproduction and not from the original time period?

Don't these look old? These are reproduction pieces of Greek coins.  The website http://www.catbikes.ch/helvetica/owlcoins.htm#copies says that these are probably from the 1950 or 60's.

The same question can be asked for many prints and posters of significant events, such as newsprint posters from the day President Lincoln was shot. There are many reproduced and fabricated items from that time, and a reproduction will have the same typeface and the date of original publication. But that doesn't mean the artifact is from that time, or even original for that matter. For you history channel watchers out there, how many times have you seen the show, "Pawn Stars" where item is brought in with a date on it and the owner swears up and down that the date is real? The answer is: too many times. And usually they don't trust the item as authentic until an expert has checked it out. Likewise, the date on the chapeau cannot be fully trusted without investigation. As textile conservators, it is important to be aware of the various materials and construction techniques of a multitude of time periods. Luckily for us, we have an extensive library of the history of textiles throughout the ages. We are especially well-stocked on books dealing with military uniforms, which came in handy with this hat. 

Detail view of the nap of the silk.  The board layer can be seen where the silk has thinned.

The artifact in question, a bicorn military Chapeau de Bras from the Buffalo History Museum (BHM) is a hat that was designed to allow it to be easily folded and carried under the arm as part of official and ceremonial dress when it was not worn on the head. The literal meaning of "chapeau de bras" is "arm-hat." The brim is turned up on two sides to cover the crown and form two corners or ‘corns’, hence bicorn. During our first examination, the hat was found to be constructed from a beige cotton board material. This base layer is covered in a woven, pile fabric on both sides attached with an adhesive. The weave is brown cotton and the pile is a black shiny material, possibly silk. The crown of the hat is lined with two glazed cotton fabrics. The vertical interior of the crown has a beige and white stripe fabric and the top has an embossed plain weave white cotton fabric. On the middle of the crown lining is a printed label, which reads, “N, N. Weaver, No. 16 Genesee Street, Utica”. There is a leather sweat band around the internal rim of the crown. 

Dating artifacts and antiques, war of 1812, art conservation, conservator of textiles and objects
Detail view of the embroidered date.

But the most unusual detail of the hat was that the date "1812", which was stitched to the proper right outside of the chapeau in metal thread braid. The braid was stitched in position with small black thread stab stitches. At first I was willing to believe the date was affixed at a later date, but that it was in fact a hat worn by it's owner in the war of 1812. Just a few months before, I had worked on a War of 1812 military sash, which also came from the BHM, and had consulted many of the books illustrating uniforms from that war. The hat looked to be similar to the style, but was not an exact match. I was to learn later that the original owner of the hat was Major General Elias W. Benson (1796-1874) of Syracuse, NY. But then I learned that he was not a top-ranking officer during the war of 1812. He in fact served during the War of 1812 as an 18 year-old drummer boy for just less than a month, from October 27th, 1814 to November 21st, 1814. This hat was not the hat of a drummer boy. However, Major General Benson would later rise up the ranks of the NYS Militia and later was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans of the War of 1812. However, according to BHM, the chapeau dates from the 1820s-1830s. If that was the case, then why was "1812" stitched to the cap?

Sean Pekar, a former staff member at SAC, who now works at Fort Ticonderoga, was able to shed some light on the mystery. He immediately recognized that the style of the chapeau was not that of the War of 1812 and inferred that this chapeau de bras was worn in commemoration of the U.S.'s victory over the English during the conflict beginning in 1812. Thus for that reason the date would have been stitched to a later style military cap.

Example of a commemorative date, as opposed to the actual date of manufacture.  This image from the Smithsonian and the Project Gutenberg ebook: "American Military Insignia 1800-1851, by J. Duncan Campbell".  The paragraph below is an excerpt from Mr. Campbell's book discussing commemorative dates

J. Duncan Campbell wrote in his above mentioned book: "An example of this commemorative military wear is the above pictured insignia from The State Fencibles of Philadelphia who were originally organized as "Sea Fencibles" in 1812 for duty at the port of Philadelphia. This cockade, with brass eagle, was first worn about 1840 and it continued in use for many years thereafter. Dates incorporated as parts of devices are generally the original organizational dates of the units concerned—as is the case in this instance—and bear no necessary relation to the age of the badges. Some Militia cap plates bear the date "1776," and there are waist-belt plates bearing organization dates of 100 years earlier than the dates at which the plates were made."

Pekar had valuable insight on the construction of the chapeau as well. Confirmed by subsequent fiber analysis, Pekar identified the plush pile that covered the pasteboard core was silk. He pointed out that the use of pasteboard and silk plush had become common place in the 19th century because the cost of beaver felt (castor) was steadily rising. The rising cost was of course due to the rising demand of beaver fur in Europe, to the point that the animal was almost hunted to extinction on the American continent. In the 19th century the style of military caps changed, getting larger overall, thus the use of silk and pasteboard was the more economical option.  

This particular chapeau de bras is shown in its hat box.  This hat is featured on the website: navalswd.com, where they indicate it is in fact made of beaver pelt.

The chapeau de bras, and later the chapeau (made more rigid and therefore not to be flattened, hence the drop of "de bras") existed in military attire for approximately 120 years before they were finally phased out in the 1930's.  As you would guess, this style of hat changed quite a bit over those years.  Here is a great page from pinterest showing various expressions of the chapeau de bras: http://www.pinterest.com/mgcoste/chapeau-bras/

This image from Parks Canada is wonderful.  Re-creators show the uniforms worn, highlighting the two chapeau de bras in the front.  Wow, they are large.

The above images are illustrations from the site thelordz.org.  These 4 uniforms are those worn in New York State during the war of 1812.  Notice the hat is worn with the "corns" oriented front to back.

It seems totally plausible that this hat is a local militia officer's chapeau de bras that was worn in commemoration of the victory over the English during the War of 1812. And honestly it does not matter much whether it was worn in 1812, or in 1820 or 30, it is nonetheless a very old hat. Which means for us, from a conservation standpoint, our treatment approach will not differ. What was invaluable information, was learning about the silk covering, made to look and feel like fur. Having this knowledge would shape the way we approached the treatment of the hat.  

With that in mind, it leads to the simple fact that authenticity does not have much footing when it comes to the treatment approach. Regardless of the owner, or the war, this hat is an approximately 200 year-old hat composed mainly of cotton and silk and needs to be treated as such.  


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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