Flag conservation

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

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.

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