‘It Shall Long Endure’: Preserving Cornell’s Gettysburg Address (part 1)

The author of this post, Michele Hamill, is a conservation expert for Cornell University Library. She and her department have helped preserve our copy of the Gettysburg Address, and she will be writing a series of posts for this blog, providing an insider’s view of the history and challenges related to this task.

Our upcoming exhibition marks a milestone for our copy of the Gettysburg Address, even beyond its 150th anniversary: For the first time ever, our double-sided copy will be exhibited with full access to both sides.

When Abraham Lincoln penned it in 1863, he wrote on the first and third pages of a folded sheet of writing paper — resulting in text on both sides of the unfolded document. This format, obviously, poses some significant challenges for preservation and exhibition.

The piece of paper itself has made a remarkable journey, starting with President Lincoln to the historian George Bancroft. Then it went to Bancroft’s grandson, Wilder Bancroft (a Cornell professor of chemistry), and then from two art dealers to a Cornell alumnus, Nicholas H. Noyes. Noyes — along with his wife, Marguerite Lilly Noyes —gifted the copy to Cornell University.

The first page (the right half of the sheet) is more discolored than the rest of the document due to contact with an unstable cellophane cover sheet.

The first page is more discolored than the rest of the document, because of its contact with an unstable cellophane cover sheet.

To the credit of previous owners and caretakers, Cornell’s Gettysburg Address has largely survived in excellent condition. However, one art dealer, Thomas Madigan of New York, mounted it with a highly unstable cellophane cover sheet in the 1930s. Madigan’s intentions were good; he was making an ill-fated attempt to protect the document from fingerprints of perspective buyers. But the cellophane significantly discolored the first page of the document.

Historical correspondence shows the Library’s acknowledgement of the problem and the steps taken to correct it. Although the discoloration caused by the cellophane is not reversible, knowing the cause of the discoloration greatly helps to minimize future deterioration.

Cornell University President Edmund Day displays the Gettysburg Address soon after it was given by the Noyes family. The Address is shown folded in half in the deluxe Madigan mount.

In the 1950s, the Library contracted with the Lakeside Press of R.R. Donnelley, a fine bindery in Chicago, to prepare a suitable mount. The bindery was extremely skillful and conservative in its treatment of the Address, making a few discreet repairs and using the best-quality housing materials then available. The Donnelley mount served Cornell’s Gettysburg Address admirably for 46 years. (The Madigan mount, the Donnelley mount, and related materials are archived as part of the permanent record of Cornell’s Gettysburg Address.)

The only time all five copies of the Gettysburg Address have been displayed together was a brief exhibit in 1950, at the Chicago Historical Society, to commemorate the “Four Score and Seven Years” anniversary. Paul Angle, Director of the Chicago Historical Society, is shown with the documents. Cornell’s address is second from the right, shown in its Donnelley mount.

Our copy is regularly evaluated to detect changes in its condition. In 2003, when the Gettysburg Address was removed from the Donnelley mount, we saw some small edge tears, a light layer of surface dirt and several small creases. Conservation treatment included gentle surface cleaning with inert materials, discreet mending of tears with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste (stable and reversible), and humidification and flattening to reduce handling creases.

Now, the Address is matted in the highest-quality mat board available and framed to current conservation standards. The document is protected from excessive light exposure by coated Plexiglas and reduced light levels in exhibit and viewing areas.

When it’s not on display, the Address is secured in a state-of-the-art storage vault in Kroch Library that maintains appropriate temperature and relative humidity. And, to reduce exposure and handling of the original, we display a high-quality facsimile of the document when it’s appropriate.

The upcoming exhibition will showcase the real thing for several days, and the new double-sided exhibit stand — currently under construction — will enhance the experience of seeing and reading Cornell’s copy of the Address.

Its preservation is an ongoing effort, and something exciting is in store: we’re currently investigating novel imaging techniques that may reveal new information critical to the long-term preservation of the document. These imaging techniques may identify an embossment on the Gettysburg Address, which is currently visible but illegible. They will also allow us to more accurately map and document areas of deterioration, such as corroded ink.

This detail of the iron gall ink used to write the Gettysburg Address shows how the ink corrodes over time and deteriorates the paper.

Our long-term preservation and successful exhibition of this national treasure is made possible by the continuing support from library donors, library staff and the University.

In a future post, we’ll share information about the paper and ink of the Gettysburg Address, and how the document’s condition was impacted by its journey to our fair Cornell. And, just whose fingerprint is visible on the letter that accompanied the Gettysburg Address? As the exhibit gets closer, we will share the installation of the Gettysburg Address into its new double-sided exhibition mount.

- Michele Hamill, Cornell University Library, October 2013

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  1. [...] the objects. Hamill describes the history of the documents and their recent discoveries in a series blog posts for Cornell’s library. Using digital imaging and comparing notes with Krowl at the Library of [...]

  2. [...] from the objects. Hamill describes the history of the documents and their recent discoveries in a series blog posts for Cornell’s library. Using digital imaging and comparing notes with Krowl at the Library of [...]

  3. [...] from the objects. Hamill describes the history of the documents and their recent discoveries in a series blog posts for Cornell’s library. Using digital imaging and comparing notes with Krowl at the Library of [...]

  4. [...] from the objects. Hamill describes the history of the documents and their recent discoveries in a series blog posts for Cornell’s library. Using digital imaging and comparing notes with Krowl at the Library of [...]

  5. [...] from the objects. Hamill describes the history of the documents and their recent discoveries in a series blog posts for Cornell’s library. Using digital imaging and comparing notes with Krowl at the Library of [...]

  6. [...] Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of her series. Gall wasps and larva inside a gall nut. [...]

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