Posts Tagged ‘history’

In addition to displaying Texas Governor John Connally’s suit, TSLAC’s exhibit “Texas Investigates: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy and Wounding of Governor John B. Connally”  highlights archival records of the Kennedy assassination, which took place 50 years ago this November. Among these holdings is a teleprint from United Press International (UPI), the first news wire service that reported the assassination story as it developed on November 22, 1963.

In a time before personal computers and the internet, UPI transmitted news bulletins across wires to Teletype machines, which continuously printed updates on a paper scroll.  Publishers and broadcasters could then communicate the news to their audiences.  On November 22, 1963, UPI teleprinters rattled frantically, and the events of the day unfurled on long sheets of canary yellow paper in newsrooms across the country.  Numerous misspellings and factual corrections emphasize the haste and intensity of the moment.  Walter Cronkite’s famous on-air announcement of Kennedy’s death was based on a UPI teleprint just like the one in TSLAC’s exhibit.

UPI teleprint from November 22, 1963.

UPI teleprint from November 22, 1963.

TSLAC’s teleprint is over seven feet long and folded into eight panels for flat storage.  The document is fully digitized in our online exhibit (1, 2, 3, 4), but the physical teleprint itself also tells a powerful story.  Accordingly, TSLAC conservator Sarah Norris designed and built a custom exhibit cradle to display the physical object and safely maximize its visual impact.

UPI teleprint on zig-zag exhibit cradle.

UPI teleprint on zig-zag exhibit cradle.

To support this unique item, the exhibit cradle has a zig-zag shape that conforms to the teleprint’s exact measurements and contours.  The cradle is built from archival, acid-free corrugated board, whose lightweight strength allows an overall cradle height of 31 inches.  A five-inch-tall model illustrated construction details, including ideal angle measurements for internal supports.  Light monitoring is periodically conducted to ensure that the paper’s yellow dye is not adversely affected by exhibit conditions. 

As exhibited, the teleprint encourages visitors to consider past communication technologies and to appreciate the impact of physical archival objects.  Visitors can imagine themselves standing before the Teletype machine in a busy newsroom as events unfolded on November 22, 1963.  Along with Governor Connally’s suit, the teleprint helps convey the immediacy and urgency of the day.


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A unique item came to the lab for treatment in April: The Journal of the First Session of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789.   Though federal documents are not uncommon in our collection, this book stands out for its age and historical significance.  The Senate’s first item of business is of special note:

Senate Journal 1789

“Whereby it appears, that GEORGE WASHINGTON, ESQ. Was unanimously elected PRESIDENT, – And JOHN ADAMS, ESQ. Was duly elected VICE PRESIDENT, OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

This book had a common condition problem.  Its hinges were broken where they had been repeatedly flexed with use.  Rather than apply repair tissue over the top of the hinge, as is a common, quick working method, a more delicate approach was chosen.  The leather that covered the spine and boards was carefully lifted and repair tissue was adhered underneath.  This created a mend that was less visually intrusive.  A drop-spine box was also created.  This type of box is typical of special collections materials and helps signify the item’s stature to users.

Since much of TSLAC’s conservation work focuses on 19th century Texas materials, this early American item was a surprise and a treat.

Senate Journal 1789

The Senate Journal of 1789 and its drop-spine box, after treatment.

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The Circle of Life

Much time is spent in this blog considering craft and materials, such as how historical papers were once made from macerated household rags.  For a quick break this Friday, I’d like to share a bit of verse that hangs in the TSLAC conservation lab.  My copy comes from Dard Hunter’s 1943 classic, Papermaking.  Though its actual origins are unknown, its sentiment is timeless.

RAGS make paper,

PAPER makes money,

MONEY makes banks,

BANKS make loans,

LOANS make beggars,



-Author unknown, circa 18th century.

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Evidence of Use

Lab work requires lab maintenance, and accordingly, this conservator found herself cleaning the sink last Friday.  TSLAC’s lab sink is a three-barreled, stainless steel giant re-purposed from an earlier preservation workflow, and as I had been negligent in cleaning it for some months, the process called for fairly extensive scrubbing.  As I got my workout, I observed how the sink’s dirt deposits indicated its use: how the center sink gets used the most; where the faucet drips; where I wash adhesive and paint from brushes.  It occurred to me that the things we regard as clean have also been rid of any evidence of use.  Clean things give little indication of their own past.


Much of the sink’s evidence of use is presumably now reformatted in this sponge.

Hand tools and lab equipment are equally good at recording their own use.  (For more on this topic, see Jeff Peachey’s blog.)  I found a great example in the lab’s board shear.  This large cutting device was made of cast iron sometime in the 19th century, and was refurbished and repainted before coming to our TSLAC lab.  Nevertheless, note the bumpy texture on its arm as opposed to the smooth texture on its handle.  Now-unknown hands did a lot of work at this machine.


Board shear arm

Board shear arm with bumpy texture.


Board shear handle

Board shear handle with smooth texture. Repeated use changes the physical characteristics of materials, even tough ones like cast iron.

Conservators often consider evidence of use in their treatments, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether wear is more detrimental or informational.  Wear patterns also document our everyday lives – consider, for example, what the bottoms of your shoes say about your posture and gait.  I often imagine an art exhibit comprising the blotters and boards used and reused in conservation treatments.  As these materials document conservators’ repetitive movements over time, they develop organic dirt and wear patterns that make statements similar to the early artwork of Richard Serra or Vito Acconci.  The softer the substance, the more quickly it records wear, creating a kind of internal clock for each material.


Different materials record time differently: already, the sheen on my keyboard’s plastic space bar nearly matches that from the cast iron handle of the board shear (above.)

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In the lab this month are three architectural drawings from 1910 – 1912, made in preparation for the construction of the Medina Dam near San Antonio.  Like many oversize materials, these drawings were rolled and required humidification and flattening for archival storage.

Two of the maps are hand-drawn on starch-coated linen.  The largest of these maps is 34” x 70”, making good use of the lab’s custom-made tables.

Medina Dam Plans - Linen

Hand-drafted plans for the Medina Dam on linen after flattening.


The third map, a 33” x 60” blueprint, required some additional work to remove previous tape repairs and mend numerous tears.

Medina Dam Blueprint

Blueprint of Medina Dam after flattening, tape removal, and mending tears.

The Medina Dam was built to control flooding and provide farmland irrigation in the Texas Hill Country, where water rights continue as a major issue in the present day (see the exhibit “Water in Texas,” currently on display in TSLAC’s lobby.)  The dam’s development group, the Medina Irrigation Company, also hoped to establish new towns and sell farmland based on irrigation improvements.  Much of the project’s funding actually came from British capital, an arrangement that became problematic with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  With access to British funding limited and the Medina Irrigation Company in jeopardy, project leader Fred Pearson set out for England to make a personal appeal.  Unfortunately, Pearson sailed aboard the Lusitania in 1915, when it was sunk by German submarines in a major international incident that eventually helped spur American entry into WWI.  The troubled Medina Dam assets were eventually sold in 1950 to a local water district, which retains ownership today.

The dam and the resulting Medina Lake were promoted as tourism destinations in the 1920s and beyond, as seen in a hand-colored postcard from the period.

Medina Dam Postcard, 1920s

Hand-colored Medina Dam tourism postcard from the 1920s. Image and much of the preceding historical information courtesy “The Edwards Aquifer Website,” http://www.edwardsaquifer.net/medina.html

As tourism in the area continues, Texas Highways magazine commemorated the 100th anniversary of Medina Dam in its June 2012 issue, which gives us this charming account:

When Medina Lake was being constructed, there was a gravel toll road (built by an industrious landowner) leading from FM 471 to the construction site. Sightseers from San Antonio would travel up FM 471 in Packard touring cars and stop at a little rock house at the intersection, where a monkey wearing a tiny hat would come out and collect the tolls. The toll road was eventually paved and became FM 1283.

So happy 100th birthday, Medina Dam.

Medina Dam Tree

The folksy 1901 floodmarker referenced in this design (see first photo) likely ceased to offer useful information once Medina Lake filled.

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One of the most enjoyable things about conservation is the unpredictability and variety of the work.  Today, I’d like to paint a brief portrait of one especially interesting piece of correspondence I recently treated.

Houston Introduction Letter Before Treatment

Sam Houston Introduction Letter - address information visible in upper left.

This 1823 letter is Andrew Jackson’s introduction of Sam Houston to Thomas Jefferson.  My work on the letter coincided with reading H.W. Brands’ Lone Star Nation, an engaging refresher on Texas history even for those who had it drilled into us as schoolchildren.  The timing couldn’t have been better, because Brands’ book puts a very human face on the friendship and mentorship between Jackson and Houston.

Young Houston first met General Jackson while serving under his command in the War of 1812.  Houston followed Jackson into Tennessee politics, becoming a congressman from 1823 – 1827, and governor from 1827 – 1829.  After resigning his governorship when his marriage crumbled in 1829, Houston eventually began his life anew in Texas.  Jackson continued to support him, especially regarding possible US annexation of the region.

Thus this 1823 letter coincides with the 30-year-old Houston’s election to the House of Representatives, a time in which a newly-minted congressman would have eagerly sought new introductions to influential people.  It’s no wonder that Jackson, himself bound for the presidency from 1829 – 1837, would have helped his protégé enter Washington life.  The introduction was timely; Jefferson, already an 80-year-old man in 1823, died in 1826.

The Houston Introduction Letter had some unusual condition issues when it appeared in the lab.  At some point in the past, the letter had been cut into 15 separate pieces, primarily along pre-existing fold lines.  These sections had then been adhered to thin pieces of silk, as was a past preservation practice.  Strangely, small gaps had been left inbetween the cut sections, leaving a grid-like appearance.  Investigation revealed the lining had been adhered with a combination of water-soluble paste and non-archival white glue, much like commercially marketed Elmer’s (see previous entry, “Problem Solving in Paper Conservation.”)

Sam Houston Introduction Letter Before Treatment

Transmitted light shows gaps between cut sections.

It’s impossible to say where, when, or why these previous steps were taken.  They might have happened even before our institution acquired the document.  However, they highlight the importance of reversibility, a central tenet of modern conservation practice.  Because of items like the Houston Introduction Letter, we know that current practice may not remain best practice forever, and we strive to learn from these past mistakes.  Accordingly, ethical conservation treatments comprise changes that can be undone in order to minimize their permanent impact on historical items.
Sam Houston Introduction Letter During Treatment

Mending cut pieces together after removing silk lining.

During treatment, I removed the silk lining, de-acidified the paper, and mended the pieces back together, closing the distracting gaps.  Age and wear have rendered those gaps still partially visible, but overall the treatment improved legibility and reduced visual disturbance.  And, if a future custodian finds that those cuts were historically important (for example, if Jackson had made the cuts himself,) my mends can be reversed and the letter returned to pieces.

Sam Houston Introduction Letter After Treatment

After treatment, the gaps have been closed as possible.

Here’s to a long life for this document of a fascinating confluence of people.

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TSLAC is participating in the Society of American Archivists’ “I Found It in the Archives!” contest.  The event offers a chance for visitors and researchers to share stories about the treasures they’ve discovered at TSLAC, and helps promote archival research.

I find all kinds of interesting things in the archives, or, rather, those things find me when they come to the conservation lab.  Two finds from this week represent the breadth of the historical materials housed in archival collections.

The Big
Sometimes archival holdings put a fine point on major events in history, such as this ticket to the presidential welcome dinner in Austin November 22, 1963.  President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and their wives were to attend; Kennedy was shot in Dallas earlier that day.  This ticket, along with an invitation and program for the event, are part of a larger, donated collection of newspapers and magazines documenting the Kennedy assassination.  The materials have come to the lab for assessment of whether they should be removed from their library bindings.

Kennedy Welcome Dinner invitation

Kennedy Welcome Dinner invitation

The Small
Though big finds are impressive, sometimes the small finds are the ones that really humanize the historical record.  Probably my favorite find from this week is the following letter from the 1920s, written from a mother to a son, which reminds us that some facets of family life remain unchanged throughout the years.  Note how the author pulls no punches from the letter’s first sentence.  This letter is part of a collection in the lab for basic cleaning, flattening, and mending to stabilize the correspondence for researcher use.

Dear Thad, What is the matter with you that you don't write to me?

Dear Thad, What is the matter with you that you don't write to me?

Archives offer unique, unpublished treasures that can be startling in their immediacy, especially as people grow accustomed to learning and interacting onscreen and online.  Learn more about TSLAC’s “I Found It in the Archives!” contest on our website, and plan an archives visit soon!

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