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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Conserving New York's Suffrage Wagon

The journeys of historical artifacts often take many twists and turns; their stories become embellished and some undergo physical changes that make deciphering their histories all the more challenging. In honor of Women’s History Month, we thought it would be interesting to share the conservation challenges of a wagon that was used by the New York State Suffrage Association to advance the cause of women’s right to vote in the early 20th century.

The treated wagon as on display at the New York State Museum. The
later letting 'Sprit of 1776' can  be easy seen

In June of 1913, the Association received the wagon as a gift from the I.S. Remson Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn for use in suffrage parades in New York City and Long Island. The wagon was said to have a Revolutionary War pedigree, although that story has not been corroborated. After the right to vote was successfully achieved, the wagon was retained by the Kearns family who accepted it on behalf of the Association until it eventually made its way to the New York State Museum by way of the short-lived Museum of Women in Manhattan. A side panel on the wagon is painted with the lettering, "Spirit of 1776," the name Edna Buckman Kearns is said to have named the vehicle, according to her great-granddaughter. Was this because of the unfounded pedigree? We'll likely never know.

The wagon when on parade. The lettering visible
in the image can only faintly seen, but still
present (see the image below).

The wagon, accurately termed a New England Pleasure Wagon, received conservation treatment by Gwen Spicer and Ron duCharme in 2000, with the goal of stabilizing it for exhibit. The treatment focused on the three materials used in the wagon’s construction – the wood wheels, axles, and body; the body's painted surfaces; and the iron springs, wheel hubs and rims.

Inadequate storage and exposure to weather take their toll on wood and painted surfaces. Dry rot, shrinkage, warping and crumbling paint are common problems. In the case of the wagon, they were compounded by grease, oil and bird guano.

A thorough cleaning required removing the wood body and wheels from the carriage. What was left of the lettering on the wagon body’s sides needed to be protected to prevent further paint loss during the remainder of the cleaning process. This was achieved by consolidating the painted surfaces with a dilute solution of Acryloid B-72, applied by brush. Dirt and soil could then be removed from the body with diluted detergent and water. Grease and oil on the running gear were cleaned with mineral spirits.

The wagon during the stabilization of the painted regions. At
least two campaigns of  paint are present. The '6' of 1776 can
be seen in the image above.

A separated side panel was glued back into place and small wood losses and missing molding were reproduced, glued in place and toned. Plaster fill from a previous restoration was removed.

All heavily corroded metal components were cleaned with brass bristle brushes, degreased with mineral spirits and then coated with magnesium phosphyl in order to chelate the metal before being painted with dilute black enamel.

The uneven color of the wood surfaces was evened out by brushing on water-soluble aniline dye. A final protective application of dilute Acryloid B-72 in xylene was thinly applied to all surfaces by spray gun and a second thin-layer was applied to heavily weathered areas.

Despite its centuries of use, the Suffrage Wagon has earned its place in history. It can no longer withstand prolonged stress and most certainly cannot hold people or be pulled any distance. For long-preservation, the recommended temperature is between 60-70 F, and relative humidity between 40-55%. Light levels should be between 5 and 10 footcandles.

Additional Resources

Bill Bleyer. Women's groups petition NY state museum to display LI suffrage leader's wagon.    Newsday.  June 27, 2015. Accessed March 23, 2018.

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. Preserving and Restoring Furniture Coatings. Accessed March 23, 2018.

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