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Preservation Week: Photo-Albums and Scrapbooks

j.m. iacchei

Today’s blog reports on the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) workshop Your Photographic Scrapbook: Identification and Preservation and is the 4th in our Preservation Week series highlighting Cornell University Library Conservation Lab’s continuing educational efforts to better preserve and protect our collections.

Our family albums and scrapbooks are treasured heirlooms. Each page offers a new story or anecdote about the people and places held within the album’s pages. They bring forth the memories, conversations, and storytelling that help us define who we are and where we come from–our family roots.

table with spread of ablums

As part of the CCAHA’s Collections Care Training initiative, Barbara Lemmen, Senior Photograph Conservator, offered a workshop entitled, Your Photographic Scrapbook: Identification and Preservation hosted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The workshop took on three main areas of focus. First, a lecture presentation providing background on the history of scrapbooks and albums, an overview of the styles of bound structures that developed to hold the contents contained within, the structural characteristics and components that deteriorate with age and use, and the ways in which to preserve and care for these items. Second, a visual sampling of a variety of photo albums and scrapbooks within the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collections. And lastly, a hands-on component evaluating condition and discussing possible preservation options for specific items.

A lot of material was covered in this one-day workshop. As a Senior Conservation Technician working within an academic institution, I found these last two components of the workshop to be the most informative. Chronologically, we may be able to place albums and scrapbooks into categories but as individual items they all present unique challenges and needs. The historical significance of the structure, the original format and placement of the images, intended use, budget, and available time are all considerations in determining appropriate treatment and storage options.

Scrapbook or Photo album?

scrapbook and photoalbumScrapbooks are not a new or recent trend. Their roots date back to the 1700’s. In effect, the scrapbook is about 100 years older than the photo album. They typically contain clippings and articles, and after the advent of photography in the mid-1800’s – photographs. The distinction between the two is that scrapbooks can be continually added to, while albums are usually themed with a specific direction – for example a wedding album.

The earliest structures used for scrapbooks and albums were blank books sold by stationers intended for writing. The addition of dimensional material adhered to the pages places stress on the binding and inhibits the covers from fully closing-causing distortion that allows light and dust to enter the pages. With the advent of photography in the mid 1800’s, albums were developed specifically to accommodate the added dimension of photographs. The structure of each album or scrapbook and the materials used in its construction inform the present condition. Below are three examples of albums more commonly found among family collections.

Carte-de-visite and Cabinet card albums (ca. 1850-1900)Album cover and open pagesThe album structure and page construction of carte-de visite and cabinet card albums were made to allow for the thickness of mounted photographs. The photographs could be slipped into the window through slots located in the pages.  Each window could accommodate two photographs – one viewed from each side of the page. carte-de-visited album and cabinet card albumThe album shown above accommodated both CDV’s (left) as well as cabinet cards (right).

If carefully placed, the paper windows held the photographs in position. However, the slots could be easily torn when the photograph was placed (as seen in the right image above). A torn window left the photographs less securely held and prone to shifting out of position.

Loose Leaf Bindings (ca. 1920-1970)

side-laced, chicagopost and three-ring albumsLoose-leaf bindings were less expensive to make and pages (leaves) could be easily added or removed. There are various types of loose-leaf bindings including: side-laced (left) Chicago or screw post (center), and 3-ring (right).

Albums of this era were often made from less expensive wood pulp paper. In addition to the albums pictured above, black paper albums were also very common. Black paper was chosen intentionally by the manufacturer. Not only did it provide a strong contrasting background to the black and white photographs held within but it also hid the discoloration caused by the deterioration of lignin (a naturally occurring substance in wood that darkens and breaks down into acidic byproducts as it ages) common to wood pulp papers.

Photographs could be held in position by a few mechanisms: overall or corner mounting using an adhesive, photo corners (left) or slits cut into the support page (right).

Photographs mounted using adhesive presented two issues: 1) page distortion and undulations from additional moisture added by the adhesive and 2) adhesive failure leaving loose photographs, adhesive residue and staining, and possibly abrasion to the paper support. Mounting the photographs with photo-corners or through slits alleviated the distortion caused by adhesive and allowed the photographs to flex with the movement of the page. However, paper slits tear and placement of the photograph’s corners into photo-corners and through slits places stress on the corners which can become bent when inserted. Additionally, the photograph may become discolored in the area placed under the slot or corner.

 Magnetic albums (ca. 1960-2000)

Magnetic albums

Magnetic photo albums are often spiral bound. Each page was coated overall with a pressure sensitive adhesive and wrapped in a plastic overlay. At purchase, the plastic overlay is clear, smooth, free of wrinkles, and held photographs firmly in place. Over time, the plastic material used as overlays can wrinkle, distort, and become creased or folded (right image).  If they remain firmly in place over the photographs, any patterns of distortion (wrinkles) can be transferred to the photograph’s surface. They can also give off acid and plasticizers causing deterioration to the photographs.

The adhesive on the pages deteriorates as well, oxidizing when exposed to air. The oxidation will cause the adhesive bond to react in one of two ways – it will either strengthen, making it difficult to safely move the photos, or it will fail, resulting in loose photographs (center image above).

To better preserve your personal albums and scrapbooks they can be placed in an enclosure in an environment where temperature and humidity don’t fluctuate. The main level of your home may offer a more stable environment than the basement or the attic. Archival boxes can be purchased from Gaylord Archival Products. When they are brought out to be looked at, handle them with care. A soft pillow(s) can offer support to albums with fragile bindings. The cushioning of the pillow supports the opening, allowing the pages to be viewed without compromising the binding. For specific concerns to your personal albums (broken sewing, loose pages, photographs stuck firmly to magnetic pages), contact a conservator. They may be able to offer feasible suggestions to help preserve and extend the life of your albums and scrapbooks into the future.

For more information about preserving scrapbooks, see ALA’s Preservation Week Preserving Historic Scrapbooks and Making New Ones That Last (Melissa Tedone, 2014). The recording as well as handouts, slides, questions and answers are available as a PDF.

Below are some additional resources discussing preservation and history of photograph albums and scrapbooks.

Zachary, Shannon, ed. (2000) Conservation of Scrapbooks and Albums: Postprints of the Book and Paper Group/Photographic Materials Group Joint Session at the 27th Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, June 11, 1999, St. Louis Missouri. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Conservation.

Haley, Alan and Adrienne Lundgren (2011) Preserving Photographic Albums. Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography. Verna Posever Curtis, ed. New York: Library of Congress and Aperture Foundation, 277-279.

Long, Jane S. and Richard W. (2000) Scrapbooks and Albums. Caring for your Family Treasures. New York: Abrams, 38-45.


Treatment of a 19th C. hydrographical map

The Conservation Lab mentors students interested in library and archives conservation and their conservation projects are great learning opportunities for us all. Margaret Canfield, a Cornell University junior majoring in art history, has been a student employee in our lab for several semesters.  Her blog describes the treatment of an early 19th century map.

Margaret Canfield

In the field of conservation, the history of an object helps inform its treatment. A survey of the coasts of Cornwall and Devonshire in the Bristol Channel from St. Agnes Head to Hartland Point includes interesting additions of mailing labels and postage stamps that form part of its unique history. This map is from the Maps and Geospatial Information Collection, an extensive collection in Olin Library that contains over 650,000 maps. The treatment of this map took the historical evidence of the mailing labels and stamps into consideration and focused on stabilizing areas that were detaching from the cloth backing, to prevent loss of the paper support and media.

The geographic area depicted in the map was surveyed in 1772 by Murdoch Mackenzie and published by the Hydrographical Office in 1810 by Captain Hurd. Hydrography is the science that measures and describes bodies of water and adjoining coastal areas for improved navigation, safety, and efficient transport.

The map is an engraving in black ink on good quality, handmade, wove paper.

The Man and his Man refer to two small islands north of St. Agnes. Also known as Bawden Rocks and Cow and Calf.

Raking light shows the many surface undulations on the map.

The map was lined overall on the verso with a coarse, sturdy fabric, resembling burlap.  The edges of the map were reinforced with dark green ribbon.  Because maps at this time would have been working documents—in this case, used and referenced in the study of this geographic area—it was common for them to be made more robust with strong fabric linings and edgings.

On the fabric lining, there are stamps, labels, and postage marks that reveal a glimpse into the story of the map’s life. A paper stamp on the upper left corner of the verso (shown here on left), and another paper label on the front that covers some original text, indicate the map was sold by James Wyld, the geographer to the King. This could refer to either James Wyld Sr. (1790-1836) or his son James Wyld Jr. (1812-1887), who partnered with him in the family business of cartography.

A shipping label on the verso (on right, above) shows the map was mailed from James G. Commin to E.J. Bailey, of Eddy St, Ithaca. Commin was a noted bookseller in Exeter, England and there is evidence that he was in possession of maps from Devon and Cornwall from various newspaper ads in The Publisher’s Circular and Bookseller Record of British and Foreign Language Volume LVIII.

The canceled stamp on the verso shows the map was mailed from Commin in 1912 to E.J. Bailey, and arrived postage due. An Ithaca directory from 1912 corroborates Bailey’s address as Eddy Street.  E.J. Bailey (Elmer J) got his PhD from Cornell in 1909 and was a professor in English until his leave from the university in 1919. There are no records detailing how the map came to reside in the Maps Collection in Olin Library but it may have been donated by Professor Bailey.

The presence of the many labels and stamps directly on the map’s cloth backing indicate it may have been mailed from Exeter to Ithaca without additional packaging. The map was in good condition considering its age and history of being shipped overseas with just the cloth backing as protection. The map had significant surface dirt on both the recto and the verso. The lining of the map was loose in some areas and detaching from the paper support. The map had two small losses in which the cloth backing was torn completely through. The surface of the map was creased in many locations with several breaks in the paper support.  There is evidence of some fold lines, with one prominent fold through the vertical center, which bisects the mailing label.  On the bottom left corner of the recto, there was a small amount of glassine adhered to the map; its purpose is unknown. There are four ink Cornell Library ownership stamps on the map’s recto.

Several factors were considered in creating a treatment plan for the map, including: the map was in good condition with only minor issues, the cloth backing was not actively causing concern, and the mailing labels and stamps form an important part of its history.  Accordingly, the cloth lining was left intact and the treatment focused on stabilizing the minor condition concerns and providing a protective enclosure.

Stabilizing lifting paper with wheat starch paste and drying in place under weight.

The treatment consisted first of thorough surface cleaning. The recto was cleaned with cosmetic sponges and then three iterations of vinyl eraser crumbs. The recto was then carefully vacuumed with a HEPA vacuum. The cloth verso was cleaned with a sponge eraser while the labels and postage stamps were cleaned with cosmetic sponges. The verso was also vacuumed. Small areas of lifting of the labels on the verso were pasted down with wheat starch paste. The lifting areas of the paper support were reattached to the cloth backing with wheat starch paste. The glassine was removed using a methylcellulose poultice. The losses and frail areas were mended on the verso using acrylic toned Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.  While the black engraving ink was stable in water, the Library ownership stamps were soluble.  So the map was gently humidified using felted Gore-Tex, which is a controlled method that did not disturb the ownership inks. After humidification, the map was dried and flattened between thick blotters and under weight to reduce surface creases and undulations. After treatment, it was sleeved in polyester to protect it in storage and during handling.

Recto and verso of the map in raking light, shown before treatment on the left and after treatment on the right.

This map has such an interesting history, from its assortment of mailing labels and postage stamps, to its connection to Cornell University faculty, and finally as part of the Maps Collection. After treatment that retained its historical evidence, the map is better preserved and available for study–perhaps for a future researcher to discover why Professor Bailey was interested in a hydrographic map of the coast of Cornwall!


Partial Leather Rebacks: A Case Study


Today’s blog describes a book conservation treatment informed by a resource from our Conservation Lab’s library of reference materials.  The Conservation Lab’s library has hundreds of resources on conservation and preservation topics (treatment, handling, environment, disaster planning and recovery), bookbinding, and artist’s materials and techniques. We add new resources to our library frequently and the collection is open to all users. This is the 2nd in our Preservation Week series highlighting Cornell University Library Conservation Lab’s continuing education to better preserve and protect our collections.

Caitlin Jochym


Books bound in leather are susceptible to a number of problems. Because of this, we see a lot of them in the lab. The leather can deteriorate over time, weakening the joints and causing boards to detach and spines to be lost. Part of our working philosophy is to do as little as we can in the way of treatment while stabilizing the item enough that it is not damaged by handling. The following treatment decision was made with that in mind.

A leather reback is called for in certain cases where a book bound in leather is in a condition that leaves it vulnerable to damage by handling. This often means the leather is deteriorating, the spine is partially detached or missing, the boards are detached, the sewing compromised, or any combination of these things. We “reback” a book by applying a new leather spine to strengthen the book structure while retaining as much of the original material as possible. In the case of this book from the Cornell Music Library, the board attachment was very strong and the spine was in great condition except for one detached section.

The top portion of the spine is detached, exposing the original spine linings.

Rebacking is an invasive and complex treatment that should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary. Since the board attachment was sound and the shoulders of the book where the spine was intact were in great shape, I was reluctant to do a full reback. I knew there was a way the leather of the headcap could be replaced without going to the extreme of a full reback.  A full reback would have required cutting through the shoulder and removing the remaining spine to expose the back of the book.  Though I had never done this particular repair myself, I decided to do a little research and give it a try.

In our conservation library we have a copy of “The Restoration of Leather Bindings” by Bernard Middleton, who is considered to be one of the most skilled and influential bookbinders of our time. This book is an invaluable resource for all types of leather book repairs. It includes detailed instructions and wonderful illustrations on the various ways to repair books bound in leather (there are many). I’ve used this in the past and luckily it has a section on repairing headcaps!

middleton illustrations

Illustrations demonstrating the headcap repair technique I adapted. Middleton, Bernard C. The Restoration of Leather Bindings. Rev. ed., American Library Association, 1984.

In Middleton’s book he is working on a tightback, which means the leather is adhered directly to the spine. This can be more complicated because it’s often very hard to separate the leather from the back of the book without damaging it. The book I was working on had a hollowback which made things much simpler. With a hollowback, the leather is attached to a folded tube of paper adhered to the back of the book, which allows for a more flexible opening. It was fairly easy to adapt Middleton’s method to fit the structure I was working with.

I first removed the linings from the exposed part of the spine. Leaving original linings makes even adhesion of new linings difficult.  It adds bulk and stress to that section of the spine which can inhibit the opening. To remove the linings, I used a poultice of wheat starch paste. This softened the adhesive and allowed me to scrape off the residual paper linings with a dull knife.

lifting leather

Next, I lifted the original leather on the sides of the book and slightly underneath the intact part of the spine. I also lifted the paste downs on the inside corners of the boards where I would tuck the turned in leather.


I lined the exposed spine with Japanese kozo paper and attached a piece of cloth which was carried across the shoulders and adhered to the boards under the lifted leather. A new paper hollow of archival wrapping paper was attached to the spine on top of the cloth lining.


I prepared a new piece of leather (vegetable tanned goat) by paring it very thin around the edges so it could be tucked under the original leather without being too obvious and to minimize the thickness so the functionality of the opening would not be affected.

Normally when doing a leather reback, we would attach the leather to the back of the book and then turn it over to the inside to form the headcaps. What Middleton suggested was to actually adhere the leather “upside down” to the inner boards and back of the book and then turn it back onto the spine. I made two slits in the cloth and the hollow to allow for the new leather being turned over the boards. Using wheat starch paste I attached the new leather around the spine through the slit cloth and hollow and under the paste downs.

new leather

New pared leather inserted “upside down”.

turning in

I then folded it over the slit hollow carefully inserting it under the original leather. Using a bone folder I made sure the leather was stuck down and then formed the headcap.

I set the joint by opening the front and back board and applying a downward pressure while the leather was damp. Setting the joint coaxes the leather into a shape it will “remember” when it dries and allow a free and flexible opening. I used pieces of mylar (precut to size) between the old leather and the new to prevent moisture transferring to the old leather, which can cause discoloration. The book was then put between boards and left overnight to dry.

The next day, I cleaned up and reattached the original spine to the new leather with PVA (Poly Vinyl Acetate is a synthetic adhesive which is useful because it introduces very little moisture which can stain old leather.) The inside paper paste downs were readhered with wheat starch paste.

old spine

The original spine piece was readhered to the new leather.

kozo lining

Lastly, a strip of colored kozo was attached with wheat starch paste to protect the inner joint.

before and after

Before treatment on the left; after treatment on the right.

This isn’t a treatment we will use often, but it goes to show what a valuable resource a library can be, and how much can be learned from the countless years of experience gathered in a few books!

For more information on Bernard Middleton’s extraordinary career. See:

Exhibit Supports: Learning about Vivak®

Pat Fox

Today’s blog on working with Vivak® for constructing exhibition supports is the 1st in our Preservation Week series highlighting Cornell University Library Conservation Lab’s continuing educational efforts to better preserve and protect our collections.

Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections creates several exhibitions annually, featuring the rich and varied materials in its collections.  Conservators play an essential role in these exhibitions, by evaluating the condition of collection materials, providing advice on light levels and handling, treating condition issues, and constructing cradles and mounts to support and safely display items.

In the current exhibit, World Picture: Travel Imagery Before and After Photography, there are several different types of our custom-made matboard cradles and supports in use. Matboard is easy to work with, versatile, and recyclable.

vertical and horizontal support

Shown here are the different types of matboard supports used in a vertical case and in a horizontal case.

In addition to matboard, there are other materials used for exhibit supports. I had the pleasure of attending the Ivy Plus Mount Making workshop on April 4th and 5th. Mark Pollei, Assistant Director for Library Conservation and Preservation at the Sheridan Libraries and Museums at Johns Hopkins University, hosted a group of professionals coming from seven different institutions. We came to learn how to construct supports made from Vivak®, a transparent thermoplastic, for library materials on exhibition.


library and support

Left: Milton S. Eisenhower Library; right: Vivak® support at the George Peabody Library

woman and support

Left: Yan Choi, a LACE fellow studying at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, drills holes in her support pieces; right: sample Vivak® support tilted at 20°

More frequent and larger exhibits are challenges facing the participants in the workshop. We talked about modular supports systems that have pieces that can be reused and reconfigured. We also discussed standardizing display angles and making cradles in three sizes; small, medium, and large. Alessandro Scola, Senior Book Conservator at Hopkins, spent two days sharing the system that he has developed. He uses Vivak®, metal brakes and cutters, drills, and lots of trigonometry to build supports that safely and elegantly display the unique materials that are in his care. He showed us his system in a detailed Powerpoint presentation. Then we had a chance to put his system to use, working with kits Alessandro had assembled to make several different kinds of supports.

man and math

Left: Alessandro Scola demonstrating the metal brake used to bend Vivak®; right: trigonometric plans for supports

I have had the opportunity to experiment with Vivak® a little here at Cornell. Vivak® is perfect for items that require transparent supports, like books with unusual formats and certain photographic materials. I’m still learning about Vivak®; I like how it holds its shape, and its transparency allows me to experiment with new display possibilities. Talking with other workshop participants gave me perspective about the exhibit responsibilities of my job. And now I have a group of people to consult when I encounter a challenge I cannot solve myself.

lantern slide and pop-up

Left: Vivak® supports for lantern slides that need light behind them to be visible, in the World Picture exhibit; right: matboard wedge and a Vivak® angle used to support an 1856 pop-up edition of Robinson Crusoe. This will appear in a single case display in the RMC Reference Room to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe on April 25th, 2019.

For more information on exhibitions, see:



Professional Development: Chemistry for Conservators


Each year I am given the opportunity to pursue professional development relevant to my position in Conservation. This support for continued growth is an invaluable benefit. This year, I decided to start working on one of my most challenging obstacles in Conservation (and Academia): Chemistry.

It is easy to get lost in the daily work – surface cleaning, stabilization, humidification, etc. that are familiar and routine – and lose sight of the underlying chemical principles that are ever present in our treatment decision making. I felt that getting a grasp of these principles was essential to my professional growth. I wanted to better understand why I was carrying out treatments and be able to apply that understanding to decision-making of items and materials that were not familiar and treatments that were not routine.

With Chemistry being well beyond my comfort zone, diving into a college level Chemistry, 18 years after my last Chemistry course, was a little too ambitious. Instead, I chose to apply to the Chemistry for Conservators correspondence course offered through International Academic Projects.  It is designed for those of us who do not have a strong background in Chemistry, but who work closely with it every day.

The course distilled Chemistry down to the fundamental principles that directly impact conservation practices – and it took out “the math”.  It is divided into four blocks to be completed over 4 months, each block building upon the last as new topics are introduced. Block 1 introduced the physical world with focus on air and water; Block 2 covered basic chemical principles – atoms, electrons, compounds, reactions, molecular models; Block 3 began to link the principles introduced in Blocks 1 and 2 to deeper concepts – solutions, electrochemical principles, organic compounds, polymers; and Block 4 addressed the challenges conservators are presented with most often – the effects of water, cleaning –why, when, and how much; adhesives, and degradation. Each of these 4 Blocks was accompanied by readings from the textbook (Chemistry 2nd ed.), the Science for Conservators Series, Volumes 1-3, and supplemental course notes accompanying each block, as well as experiments (materials supplied) and review questions. The textbook provided a general introduction to the topics covered, the Science for Conservator Series and course notes provided a more technical explanation, the questions highlighted key concept, and the experiments provided a concrete visual example of the concepts discussed in the texts.

Though simple, I found the experiments required the most time and independent thought. They provided a means to practice those skills needed in conservation assessment and decision making: observation, organization of thought, ability to draw conclusions, and direct application of understanding gained from drawn conclusions.

This course was challenging, but manageable. It is noted that is a time intensive course and to plan for 10-12 hours/week to devote to the material. This is fairly accurate – less if you are a quick reader, and Chemistry comes naturally to you; more if you are a slow reader, like to take meticulous notes, need to re-read, and Chemistry is not you forte. The course covered topics across conservation – extending beyond the conditions found with paper and photographic collections with which I am most familiar. Metal, ceramic, glass, and textile materials, have been surfacing more and more often in the conservation lab from Cornell University Library Collections. Having some framework and resources will be helpful in understanding current conditions and guiding treatment needs. With this course, I am better equipped to take a more informed approach to the treatment of the materials I am responsible for preserving. And while there is more to learn, I left this course with a foundation to build upon. I gained greater awareness of the underlying chemical principles that explain current conditions and the potential options and outcomes of material choices and treatment methods.

Here are two examples:

Shown here is a tintype (silver image on black lacquered iron support) from the Loewentheil Family Photographic Collection in the Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. It demonstrates how corrosion can occur if the tintype is exposed to poor environmental conditions. Rust is the slow oxidation of iron. It occurs as 2-part reaction when the iron support is exposed to BOTH air and water. First the iron is oxidized by the air to form iron oxide. The iron oxide then reacts with moisture in the air to produce hydrated iron oxide-more commonly known as rust. By minimizing one of the two factors causing rust to occur- exposure to air or water/moisture in the air- you can assist their preservation.

Late 19th and early 20th century newspapers provide excellent examples of cellulose deterioration caused by acid hydrolysis. Cellulose in a polymer of glucose which forms from condensation reactions that occur between the reactive -OH (hydroxyl) side groups.

One of the ways these cellulose chains are broken down is by acid hydrolysis. In the presence of moisture, acids from the environment (air pollution or poor quality enclosures) or from within the paper (raw materials, manufacturing processes) repeatedly cut the glucose chains into shorter lengths. This reaction also produces more acids – providing fuel for further reactions and continued degradation. This newspaper shows the affects of this deterioration–brittleness, loss of strength, crumbly edges, and darkening.  This course provided me with an excellent background to navigate the variety of approaches to mitigating these concerns–treatment, environment, and enclosures.

I am grateful to Cornell University Library, Tre Berney, Director Digitization and Conservation Services and Michele Hamill, Paper and Photograph Conservator, for their continued support and encouragement of my professional development, and the rather generous amount of time I was given to spend on this coursework.


Pigmeat’s Laugh Hepcats

Jill Iacchei and Michele Hamill

Cornell University Library features a growing number of archives documenting contemporary, musically based cultures such as punk, Hip Hop, black metal, and Latin salsa. Working in the Conservation Lab, I have had the privilege of working with many of these collections, which often contain a fascinating mix of photographs, flyers, artwork, and LPs. A recent addition is the poster shown below promoting the 1947 film short “Pigmeat’s Laugh Hepcats” starring Dewy ‘Pigmeat’ Markham (1904-1981).

Before treatment

This poster recently arrived in Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) as part of their efforts to document 20th century music and culture. It advertises a 1947 film featuring Pigmeat Markam, whose popular 1968 single “Here Comes the Judge” is frequently cited as a precursor to Hip Hop.

Before arriving at CUL, the poster had been folded multiple times, resulting in deep folds, some splitting and torn.  Rubber-based and acrylic pressure sensitive tapes had been used to reinforce these areas that had split or torn. Tape may go on clear at first, but deteriorated rubber-based tapes stain the paper a disfiguring amber color.  The edges of the poster had many small losses and tears and the lower right corner was fully detached. Overall, the poster had yellowed in appearance and had some surface dirt.

Left: discoloration and staining resulting from tape deterioration. Right: Edge tears and losses.

The poster was brought to the Conservation Lab to fill and stabilize the numerous edge tears and losses, reduce the dark staining caused by rubber-based tape residue, to slow deterioration of the support with aqueous treatment, and to be housed in a way that would offer support, prevent further damage, and facilitate access.

The poster was first surface cleaned with smooth sponges to reduce dirt—this step is necessary before any aqueous or chemical treatment so surface dirt isn’t trapped in the paper support. The plastic carriers of the tape were removed and adhesive residue was reduced mechanically. Discreet testing of the inks and paper support was then performed to determine what aqueous or chemical treatments may be possible.  Testing showed the red and black lithograph printing inks were stable in water and that the paper support would absorb water readily, indicating that the poster would respond well to aqueous treatment. Testing also indicated that the tape adhesive residue and staining could be solubilized and reduced from the paper support using a polar organic solvent.

Stain reduction in process

Shown above is this stain reduction in process to a corner that had separated from the remainder of the paper support. Areas of the poster with adhesive staining were placed on the suction table and masked off. The solvent was painted over these areas so the residue and staining would be pulled through the poster support onto the absorbent blotter below, thereby reducing the residue and associated discoloration. This improves the paper condition and brings your eye back to the poster design and away from condition concerns.

Next, the poster was treated aqueously to remove soluble degradation products within the support, in effect slowing further embrittlement and discoloration that these degradation products cause. The drying and flattening of the poster after the aqueous treatment reduced the deep folds, giving the poster back some of its intended original appearance—a smooth surface that showcases the striking design.  The areas of loss and tears were stabilized with Japanese tissue toned to blend with the support, unifying the appearance of the poster. A polyester sleeve allows the poster to be stored and handled safely and securely.

Aqueous treatment removes soluble degradation products within the support.

Poster treatments can run the gamut of basic stabilization to more complex treatments such as this one, depending on condition, use, and importance.  After treatment, this poster now joins the rest of RMC’s deep and growing collections documenting 20th century music and culture.

After treatment

You can listen to Markham’s Here Comes the Judge here.



Workshop Summary: The Use and Creation of Pre-Coated Repair Materials

Michele Hamill

Increasingly in libraries and archives conservation there is a need for practical, safe, and efficient repair materials that address diverse collections and priorities, and can be used by a variety of practitioners (conservation staff, interns, and supervised students and volunteers). Pre-coated repair materials can fill some of this need with their versatility, convenience, and ease of use.   Pre-coated repair materials (usually Japanese tissue coated with an adhesive and then dried) supplement traditional conservation mending techniques like wet wheat starch paste applied to tissue.  At the point of use, the adhesive on the pre-coated tissue is reactivated with water, solvent, a combination of water and solvent, or heat.  A low amount of water, or no water at all, make them very useful in a variety of treatment scenarios with sensitive media, coated papers, easily stained papers, and in prepping collections for digitization, in production projects, and off-site work.  There is time and effort in preparing the pre-coated tissues, but once made, they can last a long time which adds to their convenience.

The conservation community is highly interested in these pre-coated materials and how they may benefit their collections, as evidenced by the over 150 conservators, technicians, and students who have taken this workshop.  I was interested to learn how these pre-coated materials may be used with Cornell Library’s paper and photograph collections, particularly modern archives collections (often with brittle paper and modern media), iron gall ink documents, architectural drawings, newspapers, and resin-coated photographs.  The workshop was a great learning experience which increased my knowledge and familiarity with these repair materials and techniques.

The beautiful Indiana Historical Society served as host for this recent workshop on the use and creation of pre-coated repair materials, sponsored by FAIC.

The workshop was organized by IHS book conservator Kathy Lechuga, with assistance during the workshop by IHS conservators Stephanie Gowler and Ramona Duncan-Hines. The IHS conservators did an outstanding job preparing the vast amount of materials for the workshop and generously opening their lab for our use.

The IHS was a fantastic site for a workshop with convenient lecture facilities and their wonderfully outfitted conservation lab, large enough to accommodate 18 conservators working there over 3 days.

The workshop instructor, Sarah Reidell, Head of Conservation at University of Pennsylvania Libraries, has deep expertise in the subject of pre-coated repair materials and her website is a great resource with a bibliography and photo galleries of previous workshops.  Sarah was an outstanding instructor, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and encouraging.  Encouragement played a key role in the workshop as the techniques and materials involved were many, and skill levels and prior experience were diverse.  Using a combination of informative lectures, instructor-led demonstrations, and group discussions, Sarah presented information on a variety of adhesives and techniques to apply them successfully to tissue, and then how to reactivate the pre-coated tissue for use on a wide variety of collection materials.

Sarah is shown here demonstrating preparing pre-coated tissue using a mix of wheat starch paste and methyl cellulose.

One of the best parts of the workshop was being guided by Sarah to experiment, critique, engage with other participants, and move outside your usual pattern when approaching repair, in a supportive, collegial environment.

The advantages of pre-coated repair materials are many and include versatility, increased choice (type of paper, adhesive, reactivation method), more control, customization, ease, speed, portability, consistency, and production.  Disadvantages can include “hand” (your skill level) in making and using the tissues, possible solvent sensitivity of conservator and object, and inadequate reactivation which could lead to adhesive failure.  Through the workshop, we learned many techniques for applying the adhesive(s) onto very thin Japanese paper and reactivation methods to optimize adhesion success.

The first afternoon of the workshop was spent making tissues with starch and cellulose ether adhesives.  These are easier to make than the acrylics so we were able to hone our application techniques (drop, brush, screen) and application direction (left to right, Union Jack) and then adding the tissue (top edge laid down first, or bias drop—my favorite), or applying the adhesive directly to the tissue (Tricky! A light hand and mindfulness help a lot).  For me, applying a layer of adhesive to the polyester and then dropping the tissue onto the adhesive created a nice adhesive layer, without roughing up the paper fibers which can happen with the brush-through method. We experimented with applying the adhesives to the polyester support in a variety of ways (Hake or synthetic brushes (easier to clean!), rollers, foam brushes, and stipple brushes).  Helpful tips include humidifying thicker papers in advance and adding a spritz of water to the applied adhesive layer to encourage capillary action.  But resist the urge to “fix” the tissue (a strong inclination in a conservator!) once it is down.  Practice and patience are key.

Sarah is seen here showing the “top edge down first” method of dropping very thin Japanese tissue onto adhesive. Her preference (and mine as I practiced) is to drop the tissue on the bias, center first.

The adhesives covered in the workshop included wheat starch paste (the staple adhesive of many conservation labs), cellulose ethers (like methyl cellulose), proteins (including gelatin and isinglass) and synthetic adhesives (including those used to prepare your own heat-set tissues). Great tip: Soak wheat starch paste in water (in whatever proportion your lab uses) for 20 minutes prior to cooking. This soaking promotes swelling of the starch granules which makes for a shorter cook time (since they are already swelled) and a velvety smooth paste.

Included in the outstanding workshop handouts were detailed descriptions of the adhesives (shown here taped to the wall near the adhesive) noting concentration, common preparation, application and reactivation methods.

The application techniques included drop, brush, foaming, screen, and squeegee. The self-leveling effects of paste and cellulose ethers eased many a tissue that was a bit wrinkled during application but dried into useful sheets. Here, Sarah is foaming adhesive with a stiff brush through a screen to create a light adhesive layer.

Throughout the workshop Sarah created visual and descriptive summaries of observations and critiques. The “vertical tideline” illustrated how water evaporates from the coated tissue, creating the adhesive film layer.

The practical information shared during the workshop was really helpful—like keeping dedicated brushes for this purpose; prewetting brushes to aid cleanup; preparing the tissues over a darker surface (like Kraft paper) helps visibility during the coating; which polyester (regular or silicone coated) would allow the prepared tissue to release (hint: use silicone release polyester for the acrylics OR peel them off of regular polyester when almost dry, otherwise they will be stuck); tips to avoid contaminating adhesive stock (chop clean mat board scraps into disposable sticks or get a cheap bag of craft sticks); labeling techniques (the future usefulness of the pre-coated papers depends on good labeling including date, adhesive, concentration, and paper type, and application technique); move and dry the newly made tissues flat (or the adhesive will pool down to one edge); smaller sheets are easier to make (yes, yes, they are!); and how to store the prepared tissue (use the creation polyester as a support for thin tissues; and label folders by adhesive and paper type).

The second day of the workshop was spent working with the acrylic adhesives.  The advantage of acrylic adhesives is they can be reactivated with solvent or heat.  Concern of heat applied to collection materials is mitigated by keeping the temperature controlled with a rheostat and using small tips (no home irons here!) on the tool to deliver the necessary activation heat over only the affected area, limiting heat exposure to the surrounding area.  Weighting the treated area allows the reheated adhesive to cool and become solid which helps secure the mend. My comfort zone is very much in starch, protein, and cellulose ether adhesives so I really valued this opportunity to work with a variety of synthetic adhesives.  Sarah’s bibliography (on her website) includes some great articles describing synthetic adhesives. While there are some commercially available heat set tissues, there is a distinct advantage to creating your own tissue which allows for full control over the type of adhesive, type and weight of paper, and tone.

Pre-coated repair materials can be prepared on a variety of weights of Japanese tissue.  Very thin Japanese tissue (like tengujo, Berlin tissue, or RK-00) have the advantage of translucency so text or image is still visible through the repair. For convenience in the workshop we used untoned Tengujo tissue (5 g/m2) but the tissue can be toned with acrylics in advance to better match the item being treated.  The thinness of the tissue helps mitigate one of the disadvantages of pre-coated materials –that you can’t tear a feathered edge but instead have to cut, score, or prick the tissue.  Thin tissues don’t have the undesirable hard edge of straight-cut, thicker repair tissue and are visually unobtrusive.

The white tengujo tissue is visible on this example but would be less obvious if toned.

The needs of the object to be stabilized determine which pre-coated tissue may work.  There is no one solution to fit every problem.  Instead the workshop gave us options that could be part of the solution while factoring the extent and degree of conservation concerns; the object’s reaction to water, solvent, or heat; the surface (texture, gloss) of the object; and need of the object to flex, fold or move.  The usual steps that may be needed for preparing an item for mending, like surface cleaning, and humidification and flattening, hold for pre-coated repair materials as well.  Surface dirt in particular could present a barrier to adhesion.

The third day of the workshop was dedicated to reactivation methods on a variety of sample collection materials—coated paper, brittle paper, newspaper, tracing paper, and photographs.  We were encouraged to create tears and add problematic media like marker and ball point pen.  Straight tears (whose edges align) respond well to pre-coated repair materials.  Scarfed tears (where the edges overlap) may need reinforcement on both sides or additional adhesive fed into the overlap areas. I had some great success with a heat-set adhesive mix used at NARA on several of the practice samples.

The IHS generously donated deaccessioned envelopes with iron gall ink (which has water sensitivity and so is an ideal candidate for pre-coated repair tissue) as practice samples. There were also lots of lignin-containing papers, waxy tracing papers, coated paper, parchment, and photographs to experiment with.

I left the workshop excited about the possibilities for using pre-coated repair materials for the paper and photograph collections at Cornell Library.  So far, we’ve prepped toned pre-coated repair tissue for a large collection of iron gall ink documents and a newspaper project.  Thanks to Sarah, Kathy, Stephanie, Ramona, and all the workshop participants for a great experience.



Conservators in Action

Michele HamillDuring a recent visit to the beautiful conservation lab of the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) for a workshop on pre-coated repair materials, we had the opportunity to tour their History Lab .  The History Lab is dedicated to advancing the public’s knowledge about conservation and preservation.Be still my conservator’s heart!  An entire exhibit space and teaching facility encouraging the exploration of how IHS collections are preserved, what visitors of all ages can do to extend the life of their family collections, and learn about the different processes involved in making photographs, books, and paper artifacts.

An engaging and fun interactive display lets visitors explore a variety of artifacts and manufacturing processes in depth.

The components of this cased photograph, a tintype (a unique photographic image on a lacquered iron base), are displayed to illustrate the complex, composite nature these artifacts.

The History Lab offers a view of the state-of-the-art IHS conservation lab where visitors can see conservation in action; hands-on activities, like stabilizing paper documents; and many displays –good vs. bad paper; a recent conservation treatment, and a touchable array of materials used to make artifacts.

The visible effect of all that touching is striking. The white sheet on the far right– with the hole –is paper!

The touch display is paired with an explanation about why conservators don’t generally wear gloves during treatment. Gloves make sense in some reading room situations and with some types of vulnerable collection materials.

A detailed explanation of this conservation project was accompanied by water samples showing the discolored, acidic, degradation products that are released during careful aqueous treatment.

An impressive display illustrating how enclosures impact collection materials.

The “Unfortunate Mr. Foster” helps to illustrate how to avoid damage in home collections.

On the left is the instruction space in the History Lab for walk-in visitors, groups, and families to learn about paper conservation stabilization techniques. On the right, is the larger teaching space where the IHS hosts students from colleges and high schools, volunteers, and members from surrounding cultural institutions. The IHS store also sells archival storage boxes and basic mending kits (with instructions) to promote care of collections to its visitors.

The tools and technology used in conservation are also evident in the History Lab—on the left is a view of the IHS conservation lab and, on the right, the digital microscope exploration station showing a detail of the red watercolor used in the flower illustration.

The History Lab is welcoming, engaging, and instructive. What a wonderful way to promote how conservation benefits collections, and as a powerful teaching tool about the material culture in our everyday lives. It was also a good prompt to share what we do here at Cornell so stay tuned for a recap on the pre-coated repair materials workshop held at IHS and how we may use those techniques on our collections, and a fascinating look at squeezes (paper cast impressions) from the Parthenon.  Conservators in action!



“Less of You; More of My Ancestors” | Part II

J.M. Iacchei

In Part I of this blog series I introduced barkcloth, gave a brief historical and cultural overview, described methods of production, and concluded with the importance of conservation and preservation efforts. Part II continues with highlights from the treatment of the 12 pieces of barkcloth from the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection.“Less of you; more of my ancestors.” These were the words of guidance shared by a colleague when I inquired about treatment for this collection. I wanted to be certain that an appropriate level of treatment was provided without compromising the historic integrity of these ethnographic items. Because many of these pieces of cloth were oversized, they would need to be rolled both for final storage, and for transport to and from the digitization studio. This would mean needing the strength to withstand numerous rollings and unrollings during the imaging process, as well as afterwards in use in instruction and research.

In addition to this stability concern were the inherent causes of deterioration rooted in the items’ history, extending from the time of manufacture and the processes involved to use, and the environmental conditions of previous and present storage.

Before discussing the causes of deterioration, it is worth noting that some parts of the manufacturing process actually inherently strengthened the quality of the cloth produced. Steps taken during the pre-beating processes, and the nature of the beating and drying processes each involve aspects that facilitate the longevity of the cloth.The practice of soaking or steeping the bark for several hours prior to beating encourages a stronger and more flexible cloth. As a result of this process, bacteria and fungi from fermentation cause the plant cell wall material to break down, allowing the pectin and hemicelluloses that normally stabilize the cell walls of the living plant to solubilize and redistribute. Because of this redistribution, the resulting cloth is more flexible. The pectin and hemicelluloses that remain in place add strength to the fibers and consequently, also to the cloth.[1]

During beating, the grooves on the face of the beater spread the fibers and alter their parallel orientation to one that is angled and interlocking as well as allow excess water and air to escape. This interlocking, rather than parallel orientation, is stronger and less prone to lateral tears that most often occur parallel to the grain of the cloth’s fiber.[2] In the drying process, the barkcloth is stretched out in the sun. The high UV content of the tropical sun stunts the growth of micro-organisms.[3]

It is the following stages of decoration, use, and storage conditions that most contribute to deterioration. Just as environmental factors affect paper materials, mechanical stresses, light exposure, fluctuations in relative humidity, biological agents, and pollutants each contribute to further deterioration of barkcloth; the effects of which can be seen in color changes, staining, insect damage, mold growth and weakening of fibers.

The traditional methods of island storage were not preservation-minded. Typically, large pieces of barkcloth were stored in rolls among the rafters of the home, often in areas affected by cooking smoke. While the cooking fire kept the cloth dry and free of mold and the aldehydes in the wood smoke acted as a preservative against bio-deterioration, the exposure to smoke allowed for the collection of soot, an environmental pollutant which will overtime lead to deterioration.[4]

The dyes, pigments, resins, gums, paints, and oils used to decorate and finish barkcloth over time can deteriorate – becoming faded, brittle, and flaking.  Consequently, the cloth below the colored area will also become brittle and stiff, causing breaking, tearing along folds, or separating along the grain, leaving holes.[5]

In this collection, the main concerns were the stubborn folds incurred from previous storage, and the embrittlement of  the dyes used to apply designs to the cloth.

Eleven of the twelve items were stored together over long periods of time in a box resulting in stubborn horizontal and vertical folds. The stubborn folds were a concern both for quality of image capture and for compression overtime which leads to tears.

Overtime, dyes begin to become brittle and flake, and/or cause the fibers below to become brittle resulting in loss.

Numerous small lateral splits in the barkcloth, areas of loss, and areas of potential loss presenting instability needed to be addressed before these items could be safely transported on a roll to the digitization studio. Before these concerns could be remedied, surface soil that would contribute to further deterioration or that would otherwise embed into the fiber of the cloth when moisture was introduced during humidification first needed to be removed, and the folds reduced.

Each piece of barkcloth was vacuumed through a screen with a Nilfisk HEPA vacuum, lightly humidified to relax the fibers of the cloth, and dried under weight. Very light weight was used so as to not affect the inherent textured quality of the cloth- just enough to reduce the stubborn folds.

(Left) Holes that occurred at the time of manufacture during beating were patched with small pieces of barkcloth. (Center and Right) Similarly, later repairs were made with recycled pieces of barkcloth. In these instances, the previous repair was left. The black tape shown in the rightmost image above however, was removed.

Areas of instability, like the ones shown below, were addressed by mending with a stable Japanese tissue of an appropriate tone and weight (to blend with the natural color and thickness of the cloth). Wheat starch paste was chosen as an adhesive. In previous testing, it proved to be the most compatible with the texture and finish of the cloth. Other adhesives, methyl cellulose for example, seemed to leave a shiny finish.

(Left column) Before treatment – recto and verso                                                             (Right column) After treatment –  recto and verso

Significant tears and loss required a different approach. The barkcloth shown below had a central vertical tear extending nearly the entire length (just under 8 feet). The dyes were brittle and flaking; the cloth on either side of the tear was also brittle, shredded, and mangled. Temporary reversible bridge mends were applied on the front to ensure that the design was aligned correctly. The cloth was then rolled, unrolled to have the underside face up, and mended on the verso (back).

(Left) Vertical tear extending nearly the full length of the cloth; (Center:top) Aligning areas along the tear prior to mending on the verso; (Center bottom and right) Temporary reversible bridge mends to hold cloth in position

(Left) After treatment recto; (Right) after treatment verso

Once treated, each item could be safely transported for digitization. Each side of each item required multiple shots (12-15 shots per side) that would then be stitched together using the camera software.

Simon Ingall, Digital Imaging Assistant, expertly facilitates the maneuvering and successful image capture of the oversized pieces of barkcloth.

Ideally, if space allows, barkcloth should be stored flat. Among this collection, those that fit in folders were stored flat in archival paper folders in flat file map cases. The remaining oversized pieces were rolled on archival tubes covered with ethofoam (for cushioning) and a Mylar cover (a barrier between the barkcloth and the ethofoam). The barkcloth was rolled face up with Hollytex interleaving (spun polyester web), labeled with thumbnail image and catalogue information, and returned to The College Human Ecology, Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design for use in instruction and research.

While this treatment included practices commonly used in paper conservation treatments –  utilizing the same materials and stabilization techniques, working with laminate structures, and navigating over-sized items there are inherently unique qualities about barkcloth that required research, collaboration, and skills from allied conservation specialties. We are very grateful to our international colleagues at The Smithsonian Institution, Te Papa Museum, NZ, Bishop Museum, HI, and University of Glasgow for sharing their knowledge and expertise that only comes from the experience of working directly with these materials.

Below is a short video highlighting the treatment process of these items:



[1] Rowena Hill, “Traditional Barkcloth from Papua New Guinea: materials, production and conservation,” in Barkcloth: Aspects of preparation, use, deterioration, conservation and display, ed. Margot M. Wright (London: Archetype Publications Ltd, 2001), 33.

Due to the partial fermentation that occurs “activity from invading bacteria and fungi acquired during wetting and soaking, leads to a partial breakdown of the cell wall material helping to liberate pectin and hemicelluloses which normally cement the cells together ‘in vivo.” Thus dispersed, some of these binding chemicals get washed away, reducing the overall stiffness of the cloth. Those which remain ‘in situ’ help to thicken the fibers and bond them together in their newly aligned positions thereby strengthening the cloth.”

[2] Hill, “Traditional Barkcloth from Papua New Guinea: materials, production and conservation,” 34.

[3] Hill, “Traditional Barkcloth from Papua New Guinea: materials, production and conservation,” 35.

[4] Hill, “Traditional Barkcloth from Papua New Guinea: materials, production and conservation,” 35.

[5] Hill, “Traditional Barkcloth from Papua New Guinea: materials, production and conservation,” 41.

“Less of You; More of My Ancestors” | Part I

J. M. Iacchei

Our work in Conservation requires collaborative efforts with our colleagues throughout the library. Digitization projects are becoming increasingly more common. Together with Digital Consulting & Production Services (DCAPS) and the College of Human Ecology, Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, we recently treated 12 pieces of Polynesian barkcloth, also called tapa, from the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection.

Barkcloth, called siapo by the Samoans and Futunans, ngatu by the Tongans and Uveans, ahu by the Tahitians, masi by the Fijians and kapa by the Hawaiians, is widespread. Historically produced throughout the Pacific, Eastern Asia, and Africa, this cloth-like material is made from the inner bast fibers of select plants. The most prevalent fiber source throughout the Pacific was the Broussonetia papyrifera of the Moracaea family, more commonly known as paper mulberry. Depending on geographic region, other varieties of the Moraceae Family were also used, notably the Artocarpus (breadfruit) and the Ficus (fig and banyan). [1] Additional sources of fiber were obtained from the poison tree (Antaruis Toxicaria) and the Mamaki (Pipturus Albidus), in the far eastern tropics and in Hawaii, respectively.[2] Each fiber produced a cloth of its own color, quality, and fineness. Traveling in 1769 with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks wrote, “of this thin cloth they have as many different sorts almost as we have of linen; distinguishing it into different fineness and the different materials of which it is made.”[3]

Paper mulberry does not grow natively on the Pacific Islands but must be propagated from cuttings or suckers. [4] 7000-9000 years ago (5000-7000 BC), the inhabitants of the Asian mainland began to migrate to the Pacific Islands.[5] Among the items of necessity that they would need on their sea voyage and upon their arrival for settlement (food, fresh water, livestock, and plants), they brought with them paper mulberry. Transporting paper mulberry required great care; its survival depended upon shelter from the saltwater of the ocean and the use of fresh (drinking) water to keep it alive.[6] This was not a risk-free undertaking, suggesting the significance of both the plant and the material made from it to the people who made the effort to bring it with them across such vast distances.

Traditional uses of barkcloth range from utilitarian household purposes (curtains, room dividers, bedding, mosquito nets, bandages, candle wicks) to ceremonial (burials, deaths, births, taxes to the chiefs, and offerings to the gods). Barkcloth as clothing seems to have been a privilege of the nobility, reserving certain fashions and coloring that could be worn only by select individuals. Barkcloth carried with it a symbol of wealth, second it seems, to finely woven mats, also given in events of gift exchange, as tribute, or tax.

The fundamental steps of barkcloth production are shared among practitioners of the craft; however, the specific processes involved vary by location. Harvesting, preparation, beating, implements used, decoration techniques, and patterns each contribute to the unique qualities and characteristics that make one place of origin distinct from another.

Historically, women were responsible the manufacture of the cloth, often taking place as a communal event. The degree of the men’s participation in this activity varied by island. On the whole, they were given the responsibility of making the implements needed for their manufacture – the wooden beaters and anvils, carved designs on bamboo stamps, and wooden printing boards. It was the women of the village who were responsible for the harvesting of the bark, the beating and manufacture of the cloth, the preparation of the dyes, and the construction of the vegetal (pandanus leaves, coconut midrib, sennit) printing tablets used in their decoration.

In very general terms, the practice was to harvest the fiber, separate the outer bark from the inner bark which was then cleaned and beaten on a wooden anvil. The cleaned thin strip of bark was laid on an anvil, often hollowed for resilience and musical resonance, and beaten until it became a soft, widened, thin piece of cloth expanding in width from about 2 inches to 14-18 inches. Larger pieces of cloth were made by overlapping the edges of smaller beaten strips and adhering them together with a starch adhesive (arrowroot). Thickness was determined by the number of layers, usually 2, but more (4-5) for items like bedding. With the exception of traditional Fijian cloth, the practice was to lay the upper layer perpendicular to the lower.

Above: Wooden mallets (beaters) used to transform the strip of inner bast fibers into a soft widened piece of cloth. (Images from: Brigham, William T. Ka Hana Hapa: The Making of Barkcloth in Hawaii. Memoirs of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History, Vol 3, Honolulu, HI: Bishop Museum Press, 1911.)

Various beating methods were found throughout the islands including: folding and beating in bundles, beating strips individually, and felting. The sides of the wooden mallets (beaters) used to beat out the bast fibers were grooved, often in varied width and depth, with at least one side left smooth. Initial beating was done with the coarser side of the beater, moving progressively towards the smooth. In Hawaii, this process was at times taken one step further – giving a final beating with a beater with a carved surface (far right image above) to impart texture and pattern into the finished cloth.

Above is an example of barkcloth without a printed design. Right: A detail of the image on the left showing the texture imparted by a patterned I’e kuku (beater)

Methods of decoration found among barkcloth varied by location. There was some overlap, but distinct practices, patterns, motifs, and overall look to a finished cloth by island developed. The designs and patterns are applied by a variety of methods: freehand, stencils, stained with local dyes, smoked, and/ or printed.

Left: Freehand; Center: Stenciled; Right: Freehand over printed design

Before the introduction of synthetic dyes, native plants were used to create dyes and impart color to a finished cloth. It is no longer known exactly how these dyes were made, but it is know that they were often made from the bark, fruit, and roots of local flora. For example: brown from the bark of the candlenut tree, reddish brown from the bark of the Bischofia javanica, black from the soot of burnt candlenut kernels, and yellow from the root of the Curcuma viridiflora.[7]

One method of design application, practiced in Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, is the use of design tablets or printing mats to transfer an image onto the cloth. These mats and tablets, called upeti in Samoa, kupesi in Tonga, and kupeti in Fiji, were constructed of two layers of pandanus or coconut leaves. The top layer carried a relief pattern most commonly created from pandanus leaves, sennit, coconut midribs, bamboo, and hibiscus fiber. A rubbing technique was used to transfer the relief pattern to the beaten cloth.

In 2012, I visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago while researching barkcloth as part of a final project at The University of Iowa Center for the Book. Shown above and below are some examples of Vegetal printing mats from that visit.

Recto, verso, detail: The origin of this cloth was labeled as “unknown”. The patterns seen on the verso are indicative of the use of a vegetal printing tablet. Considering that this method was used most notably in Samoa and Tonga, and the designs are similar to known cloths of each location, it is likely that one or the other is the place of origin.

Recto, verso, detail: The origin of this cloth was labeled as “unknown”. The patterns seen on the verso are indicative of the use of a carved wooden printing board. Considering that this method was used most notably in Samoa and Tonga, and the designs are similar to known cloths of Samoa, it is possible that Samoa is the place of origin.

On Samoa, the use of vegetal upeti began to decline in the 1930’s after the introduction of metal tools proved the use of carved wooden upeti a more durable alternative. About this change, Patricia Lorraine Arkinstall quotes Margaret Mead writing in 1930: “But so well defined is the province of tapa making as women’s work, that men have not exercised their imagination on the carving of these boards.” Arkinstall further adds, “Thus, the patterns on the rubbing boards have become somewhat stereotyped. The women are not happy with the situation, but since wood carving has traditionally been men’s work, they do nothing but sit by as their patterned tapas become less and less interesting.” [8]

The Importance of Conserving Barkcloth

Because production of barkcloth has ceased in the majority of the islands, the methods of production originally used by the ancestors of today’s inhabitants are not wholly known.

The effects of European influence and missionary initiatives began to heighten during the 18-19th centuries. The introduction of European cloth, synthetic dyes, and the replacement of vegetal design tablets used in Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji with wooden ones are a few examples. By 1890, production of barkcloth in Hawaii had ceased.[9]  Adrienne Kaeppler, of the Smithsonian Institution, noted that by 1984 of the Polynesian Islands, only Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji were still producing barkcloth. [10] With few exceptions, the production and high cultural regard of barkcloth has waned and current manufacture is produced in lesser quality for the tourist market.

The indigenous technologies that were once used have been altered, and over generations,  have become lost to unrecorded history and memory. Because nothing of equal quality is being produced today, conservation efforts to identify the material, environmental, and technological influences responsible for current condition are necessary in order to determine appropriate treatments. In preserving these materials, an abundance of cultural, historical, sociological, and artistic information is retained for further research and study of the Pacific Islands and Pacific Island culture.

Read more about the treatment of this collection in Part II.

[1] [1] Neich and Pendergrast, Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific, 9.

[2] Leonard and Terrell, Patterns of Paradise, 13.

[3] Ann Leonard and John Terrell, Patterns of Paradise: The Styles and Significance of Bark Cloth Around the World (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1980), 22.

[4] Neich and Pendergrast, Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific, 9.

[5] Rod Ewins, Bark-cloth and the Origins of Paper”(Paper presented at the First National Paper Conference, Hobart, Australia, 1987), 13.

[6] Ewins, “Bark-cloth and the Origins of Paper,” 13.; Anthony Meyer, foreword to Tapa: Bark Cloth of Oceania, written by Pascal Cusenier (Paris: Galerie Meyer, 1998), 2.

[7] Kooijman, Simon. Tapa in Polynesia. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 234. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1972, Table E.

[8] Arkinstall, Patricia Lorriane, A studty of barkcloth from Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji: An exploration of the regional development of distinctive styles of barkcloth and its relationship to other cultural factors, Thesis, 1966, p119.

[9] Arkinstall, Patricia Lorriane, A studty of barkcloth from Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji: An exploration of the regional development of distinctive styles of barkcloth and its relationship to other cultural factors, 109.

[10] Mary J. Pritchard, Siapo: Bark Cloth Art of Samoa (American Samoa: Council on Culture, Arts and Humanities Special Publication Number 1, 1984), vi.