Flag conservation

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The conservation of an unusual Civil War Battle Record textile

This past autumn, an unusual artifact was delivered to the studio. It is simple in construction, basically a long width of cotton fabric, and on it painted a list of words in basic black paint. So far nothing so amazing, until the words that were so carefully and beautifully written in very different fonts were read.

before treatment image of Civil War record banner, 136th New York Volunteers, art conservation of textiles by professional textile conservator and flag expert Gwen Spicer
The banner before treatment.

Each line of text was a separate battle that the 136th New York Volunteer Regiment had been engaged in during the Civil War. In essence, this width of simple cotton fabric was the regiment's war record. Such "battle honors" are more standardly recorded and seen on both National and Regimental flags of a regiment, often recorded on the stripes (see image below). Whereas this type of simple and utilitarian artifact was quite different. Why was such a piece created?

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Detail of another NY Regimental Flag. Here the battle honors are recorded onto the stripes, this was a common practice and is the way battle honors are typically recorded.

The regiment was mustered into service in September of 1862 and composed of men from Allegheny, Wyoming and Livingston counties. The banner was clearly locally made. The banner is signed, "Made by the Nunda Sign Co." (Nunda is a town in Livingston County). Interestingly, the war record as written in the memoirs below (see more at NYS Military Museum's webpage), states the battles to be far more than those recorded on the banner, and the battles on the banner do not quite match those in the record, why would that be? (Also of note is that "Kulp's Farm is called "Kolb's Farm in Confederate records).

…"fought its first battle at Chancellorsville, losing a few men killed, wounded and missing; and was heavily engaged at Gettysburg on the first two days of the battle, losing 109 in killed, wounded and missing. In Sept., 1863, it was ordered to Tennessee with the nth and 12th corps and was engaged the following month (November 1863) at the midnight battle of Wauhatchie, Tenn., losing 6 killed and wounded. It was active at Missionary ridge in the Chattanooga-Ringgold campaign, losing 11 killed and wounded. When the 20th corps was formed in April, 1864, it was attached to the 3d brigade, 3d (Butterfield's) division of that corps, moving on the Atlanta campaign early in May (1864). It was active at the battles of Rocky Face ridge, Resaca, Cassville, Dallas, Kennesaw mountain and in the siege of Atlanta. Its heaviest loss was incurred at Resaca, where the casualties amounted to 13 killed, 68 wounded and 1 missing. After the fall of Atlanta it remained there until November (1864), when it marched with Sherman to the sea, engaged in the siege of Savannah, and closed its active service with the campaign through the Carolinas, in which it was engaged at Fayetteville, Averasboro, Bentonville, Raleigh and Bennett's house, losing 45 in killed and wounded in the battles of Averasboro and Bentonville. After the close of the war (April 9, 1865) it marched with its corps to Washington, where it took part in the grand review, and was mustered out on June 13, 1865, under command of Col. Wood, who was later promoted to bvt. brigadier-general and major-general. The regiment lost by death during service, 2 officers and 74 men, killed and mortally wounded; 1 officer and 91 men, died of disease and other causes, a total deaths of 168".

The banner may make mention of just the campaigns (Atlanta for example) rather than naming the individual battles (Resaca for example was a battle within the Atlanta campaign that lasted from May 13-16 of 1864). For a detailed timeline of 1864 (and any other year) go to historyorb.com.

The banner was in brittle condition when it arrived to us, it was mostly intact but very dirty, had several tears, and had a very sticky tape applied to the reverse side. Therefore, the treatment of the banner involved several things: cleaning, repairing the tears, removing the tape (see image directly below) that had been applied to the reverse side hems at both the top and bottom, and mounting the banner along with it's original rod and rings. As mentioned above, the banner was quite dirty when it arrived (see second image below). And amazingly, the banner was still paired with its original rod and brass rings (see third image below).

old repair to civil war banner, art conservator needed, preservation repair and conservation of historic textile
Detail of the reverse top of the banner showing the tenacious tape that had been secured to the top and bottom hems.
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Dirt removed from the banner following the wet cleaning 

Detail of the original rod and one of the brass rings (safety pin not original).

With some some simple searching, it was found that after the war, the Regiment dutifully returned their Regimental, National, and guidon flags back to New York State. The assumption could be made that this banner was created out of a local desire to commemorate the efforts of this regiment in the absence of the flags.

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The banner, after treatment, mounted and hung. 

Surprisingly, the exact date this banner was made is not readily known. Perhaps it was made soon after the 136th was mustered out of service, or maybe years later as a commemorative item for an anniversary of the 136th returning home? Perhaps at the close of the war? 

To see more about this banner, visit the website for the Livingston County Historical Society, where the banner is on display as part of their Civil War exhibit.
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, March 5, 2015

Women want to vote! Conservation of artifacts from the Women's Suffrage Movement.

The most important way I can think of to celebrate International Women's Day on Sunday, March 8th is to honor the women who fought tirelessly to secure the right to vote. The Women's Suffrage Movement is one of the quintessential time periods in women's history; and to imagine that the 19th amendment is just 95 years old this year is amazing. How far we have come, and how far we need to go.

The Finger Lakes region of Central New York was an active place in the nineteenth century. So many of us are familiar with the stories of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the town of Seneca Falls, New York; birthplace of the Women's Suffrage movement. But less than 25 miles away there was a hot bed of activity in Sherwood, New York, which then, like now, is just a dot on the map with no traffic light, only cross roads.

In 1837 Slocum Howland (1794-1881), a Quaker, abolitionist, prohibitionist and suffragist, built the Howland Stone Store Museum in Sherwood, a crossroads between Cayuga and Owasco Lakes to the west and east and the cities of Auburn and Ithaca to the north and south. Cayuga Lake gave it easy access to the Erie Canal.

According to the museum, "The Howland family, particularly Emily (1827-1929) and her niece, Isabel (1859-1942) were prominent in important reform movements throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly in the abolition of slavery, education, and women's suffrage. A prized Museum possession is an Underground Railroad pass brought by two slaves who escaped from Maryland and came to Slocum Howland seeking freedom in 1840 (image is below. the display mount is two-sided). Emily Howland first taught in schools for free blacks in Washington, D.C. in 1857. In addition to building a school in Sherwood, she founded and financially supported fifty schools for emancipated slaves, teaching in several of them."

Both Emily and her niece, Isabel were active in the local, state and national women's suffrage movements. The sign below, is from the collection at the Museum and is a clear message. The sign was treated here at SAC last year. The tears in the canvas, as well as the cracking paint, were all quite pronounced. The top image is before the treatment, while the bottom image was taken after treatment.

Women's Suffrage sign repaired, textile conservator, before treatment

Women's Suffrage sign repaired, textile conservator, after treatment

Patricia White, director of the Museum and a descendant of the Howland family said Emily Howland first met Susan B. Anthony in 1851, and maintained a close friendship with the woman throughout her life. Although her sympathies always remained with the fight for equality (and her unending desire for education for anyone, regardless of their color), Howland started to get more heavily involved in the national movement for suffrage in 1891.

That year, Howland started the Cayuga County Political Equality Club (image above with the "5315" sign in the foreground), and organization. White said the politically active group, housed on Auburn's Exchange Street, was comprised of both men and women who carried around and collected petitions (which, I would imagine from the image above, were signed by 5,315 women!).

And although women didn't earn their final goal until 1920, White said Howland and her colleagues
won small victories along with way — such as the right for men and women to share joint legal
custody of their children, and finally changing the law to allow women to inherit property from their

But eventually, the petitions, speeches and marches paid off. And at age 92, Emily Howland
headed to the polls and, for the first time, legally cast her vote.

Recently, our SAC studio manager's 9 year-old daughter had the opportunity to play with her third grade basketball team on the "big court" at a local college just prior to the women's basketball team taking the floor for a game against a rival university. They quickly realized there was a big event also taking place on the campus, a "Woman's Expo". As they neared the door, the 9 year-old looked up at her mother and asked, "what is a woman's expo anyway?". The reply from mom was that she hoped it was about leadership and decision making and equality and the amazing things women are capable of, and do, each and every day!

Sadly, it was focused on shopping and make-up. UGH!
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.