Flag conservation

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

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Printed Pillow Sham and the Mexican Border Service of 1916

by Gwen Spicer, Barbara Owens, and David Fitzjarrald

A client recently brought in a unique heirloom; a printed satin pillow sham with a portrait of a beautiful young woman wearing a sombrero and smoking a cigarette. Colored highlights of red, blue and yellow were painted into the design. Attached to the perimeter was an intricate and wide cotton fringe. Located on the lower proper right corner is "Mexican Border Service, 1916" painted in red. The construction of the pillow sham was quite simple, with one row of machine-stitching that secured all of the layers and the fringe together.

The silk satin had been folded while it was stored and this long-term folding had resulted in several vertical tears that were present across the woman's face.

Before conservation treatment, textile conservation, art conservator, family heirloom repair, cleaning, restoration, preservation, storage and exhibit, Spicer Art Conservation
The 100 year old pillow sham as it arrived at Spicer Art Conservation for stabilization and archival mounting and framing. 

As work began, we began to wonder about the message. What was going on at the Mexican border in 1916? With a bit of investigation, it became apparent that a hundred years ago, there was conflict at the border that included a dictator, southern migration for cheap labor, a revolution, an invasion of the United States by Pancho Villa, and the first taste of combat for a young U.S. Army lieutenant named George S. Patton.

After conservation treatment, textile conservation, art conservator, museum collections and family heirloom repair, cleaning, restoration, preservation, storage and exhibit, Spicer Art Conservation
The pillow sham after treatment. The tears are stabilized, the creases are removed, fringe cleaned and straightened,
and the pillow case is mounted with archival materials and placed in a sealed frame with UV filtering Plexiglas.

This pillow sham was a souvenir for soldiers involved in the Mexican Expedition. In fact, pillow shams have been a popular item for soldier to send home during war or service. This is a more personal type of souvenir, one that was different from embroidered commemorative "trapunto" textiles brought back from the voyage of the "Great White Fleet" in World War I.  

Pancho Villa (1878-1923) was a famed Mexican revolutionary and guerilla leader. 

So why was there a conflict at the Mexican Border in 1916?  Several things were happening; and it starts with the Mexican Revolution.

Pancho Villa may be a familiar name if you know about the Mexican Revolution. Villa joined Francisco Madero's uprising against Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in 1909, and he later became leader of the Division del Norte cavalry, then governor of Chihuahua. According to Wikipedia, trouble between the United States and Pancho Villa had been growing since October of 1915, when the US government officially recognized Villa's rival and former ally Venustiano Carranza as head of Mexico's government. Moreover, the U.S. provided rail transportation through the U.S. from Texas to Arizona for the movement of over 5,000 of Carranza'a forces to fight Villa at the Battle of Aqua Prieta; where Villa's Division del Norte was smashed. Villa felt betrayed and began to attack U.S. nationals and their property.

Villa killed more than 30 Americans in a raid on the U.S.-Mexican border town of Columbus, New Mexico in March of 1916. In response, the U.S. government sent General John J. Pershing and his troops to enter Mexican sovereign territory and capture Villa (Pancho Villa Expedition, later named the Mexican Expedition). Pershing was unsuccessful and Villa proved elusive during an 11-month manhunt.

from 1916, yet seems like it could fit in 2016..."Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it"
1916 cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman, via National Archive Berryman colletion This media is available in the holdings of the
 National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 306154.

But it wasn't just the Revolution that was going on; in fact something larger was on the horizon. The U.S.-Mexico border was a potential location for a German-backed invasion by Mexico. The threat of such an invasion was discovered in January of 1917 when the British intercepted and deciphered the Zimmerman Telegram, discussing Germany's proposal to Mexico to form an alliance with Germany should the U.S. enter World War I. In March of 1917 the contents of the telegram were made public and affirmed by Zimmerman himself. The Mexican Expedition ended when the United States entered World War I (the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917) and Pershing was recalled.

As an interesting side note, who happened to be serving under General Pershing? None other than a young lieutenant George S. Patton. There is a strange coincidence for us here at Spicer Art Conservation as we had recently conserved several items from the collection of the George S. Patton Museum of Leadership. We of course wondered, is there a pillow case among Patton's personal items from his service at the border?

We also discovered that a pillow sham is a common souvenir that was not only sent home to loved ones by service men, but it was also received by them as well. And, it is just as common today as it was one hundred years ago.

Souvenir military pillow cases are textiles that need require preservation to ensure their longevity. Professional textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation treats textiles.
Examples of military souvenir pillow cases

At Spicer Art Conservation we conserve historic textiles and artifacts. Whether it is a military uniform, a historic flag or banner, a tablecloth or quilt from your Aunt Sally, or General George Patton's famous Green Hornet Uniform, it is conserved with care and professional exacting standards. Visit our website and check out our textiles page for more about previous projects and artifacts we treat at Spicer Art.
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.


  1. I was wondering how you mounted the pillow sham in this example. In the article, Large Textiles Mounts, you recommend a simple pressure mount. http://spicerart.com/treatments/large-textile-mounts/

    We are planinng to mount a WWII pillow sham/case of a Battalion logo and with the two layers of the pillow case, I am wondering if something other than pressure is recommended?

  2. A pressure mount is not suitable for all textiles. The sham featured in this blog post is not pressure mounted. Often when a textile has various surface qualities, like embroidered areas, glass beads, decorations, fringe, cording, or tassels, the textile is not suitable for pressure mounting because the surface area has too much variation; therefore equal pressure across the surface would not be attainable.
    As for your sham, it would be hard to comment without knowledge of its condition, material, and how it is constructed. You can always send an email to gwen@spicerart.com with details or if you need consultation on a project.

  3. A perfect post. It is so helpful and informative for all. The images used gives a better understanding. Thank you for sharing.
    What is a sham