In October 2017, Jim Hamilton, Amherst College alumni and author of The Writing 69th, began researching for his newest book, The Black Cats of Amherst. Upon this visit to the college’s archives, he found an embroidered silk banner folded up in a box along with fragments of a red and green ribbon, Croix de Guerre medal, fourragère, and long flag staff ribbons. Hamilton would soon learn of the significance of this banner and military accouterments with respect to the history of the Section Sanitaire Etas-Unis 539 (S.S.U. 539) known as the Black Cats of Amherst. Recognizing that the banner would need professional conservation, Mike Kelly, Head of Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College, contacted Museum Textile Services to assess the condition of all the objects. Now aware of the scale of the project, Hamilton turned to the Amherst alumni to begin an, ultimately successful, fundraising campaign to save the Black Cats’ banner. The double-pointed banner is made from ribbed cream silk lined with cotton, two-sided, embellished with silk and couched metallic embroidery. The two panels are assembled by machine, trimmed with metallic bullion fringe around the perimeter. The hoist edge features three leather straps with buckles used to secure the banner to a staff.
The Black Cats was an ambulance unit formed in Amherst, Massachusetts, shortly after the United States officially joined World War I, June of 1917. They trained in Allentown, Pennsylvania and sailed to France in August of the same year, serving alongside several French army divisions. Ambulatory unit S.S.U. 539 adopted the black cat as the mascot of the unit, which they thought of as a good luck charm; contrary to the bad luck stereotype typically associated with the feline. The black cat emblazoned the unit’s vehicles, banners, and correspondence, becoming the unifying symbol which has endured beyond the end of the war. The Black Cats returned to the US in April 1919, proudly adorned with multiple military commendations for both individual and unit achievements. A group of 22 Black Cats made a symbolic march back to Amherst College on April 23, 1919, where they were welcomed home by college President Alexander Meiklejohn and Dean George Olds. The unit colors: an American flag, and two silk banners (one bearing the unit’s iconic black cat); were presented to Dean Olds who accepted them on behalf of the college. The banner to be treated at MTS does not appear in the photography from the day and it is presumed that it was made and presented to Amherst at a later date.
Addressing the condition issues of the banner and components was complicated, requiring thorough support within the confines of the project. The ultimate goal of treatment was to stabilize for safe display and be delivered to Amherst in time for the 100th anniversary of the Black Cats’ return march in April; a challenging, though certainly not an impossible task. The greatest challenge was addressing the shattering silk and detached fragments on both sides of the banner, while minimizing additional damage, and particular care to not accidentally sew the two sides together. An additional obstacle was mounting the banner to a solid support that included a viewing window which would allow the wording on the French flag side to be seen after treatment was completed. The cream silk was in poorest condition on the French flag side; actively breaking with more overall detached fragments. On the American flag side, silk deterioration and loss is limited to the bottom of the banner, coinciding with discoloration of the cotton lining near the bottom-most leather strap. The top-most leather strap was broken, though the fragment was retained. The green and red ribbon paired with the medal was in very poor condition, having broken into several pieces. All metal components were moderately tarnished.
Treatment was relatively straightforward, though several puzzles required solving. Camille undertook the task of re-aligning the fringed red and green ribbon which was in a number of disassociated pieces. The fragments were encased in a silk crepeline sandwich and consolidated with the archival adhesive, Lascaux. The shattered silk of the banner was a compound challenge as either side had to be addressed independently but with caution to the opposite side. The silk was carefully flipped, rearranged, aligned, and secured with nylon net to the entirety of the face of the front and reverse. Stitching was strategically placed at the edges of all design elements, voided areas of lost silk, and along the border. Both banner and accessories were mounted to padded and fabric covered aluminum panels then framed with UV-filtering acrylic to create an ideal display environment; both supportive and accessible for viewing. The panel for the banner did get a custom window cut out to allow the text on the reverse to be seen, all covered in Mylar to protect the still delicate silk.
We close out our series of three MTS Blogs on the subject of Fanny Appleton Longfellow's Spanish-style dress with an exploration of the synthetic dyes available in the 1850s.
If the color of the dress is not due to a natural dye, another potential material is the first of the coal-tar, or chemical, dyestuffs: picric acid. Its proper formulation was discovered in 1845, and factories existed for its production by at least 1855. Contemporary findings note that it was more colorfast than any of the vegetable dyes discussed previously, but subsequent research proved that it was not up to the standard of mineral and chemical alternatives. Despite this, it continued to be used throughout the nineteenth century on a variety of materials, and the vibrancy and purity of the color on this dress could be attributed to it.
Another option, aniline dyes, were both bright and colorfast, which made them extremely popular in a very short amount of time. Textile conservators at Museum Textile Services determined that the Longfellow yellow silk is colorfast in water, like an aniline dye. If it were dated to just a few years later, it could feasibly have been one of the first silks dyed this way; however Charles Mène’s "aniline yellow" was created in 1861, the same year that Fanny Appleton Longfellow died.
The last contemporary possibility is a mineral dye. At least one was in use for yellows by 1820: chrome yellow, which the modern reader will recognize as the color of American school buses. It comes from a mineral called crocoite, which was first discovered in the 1790s and is a standard paint color still used by modern artists. The French chemist Vauquelin began by synthesizing pigments from the mineral, and it took thirty years for a breakthrough on chemical dye use. By 1820, dyers were able to achieve a deep and striking yellow with lead chromate (a combination of lead acetate and either potassium chromate or dichromate). The name ‘chrome yellow’ derives from these chemical mordants rather than from appearance or a comparison to nature, and thus does not seem to have been used in fashion magazines like Godey’s and Peterson’s until much later in the century. In the 1850s, the brightest of chrome yellows were probably referred to as ‘canary’ or ‘sulphur’ yellows. The term ‘chrome yellow’ does appear occasionally, but only in reference to paint pigment for craft projects and home décor. It was a popular choice all around; within only a couple of years of its initial manufacture, George IV of England chose it to color the wallpaper of his Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
These articles have given a historical overview of the most likely dyestuffs; without in-depth analysis, it can be very difficult to tell what a fabric was colored with. Swatches can aid visual identification, but in a case like ours, where quercitron can create the same colors that weld can, there is an obvious difficulty. There are various techniques that are able to break this barrier, FTIR and mass spectrometry, but all require more resources than what we have at the MTS studio. Low tech, non-invasive dye identification is an area sparse in scholarship, and often historical research can be a conservator’s--and a curator's-- best bet.
In the 1850s, the color yellow could be created either with chemical dyes or with dozens of different vegetal dyes. The four natural dyes most often found in dyer’s manuals of the time were quercitron bark, weld, fustic, and turmeric. Of those, quercitron was the most common due to its combination of strength and economy. Weld, a popular yellow dyestuff for centuries, was still used a great deal. Turmeric would have been the most expensive option, but is definitely not the culprit here: its hallmark is a warmer, golden color. The last option, fustic (both ‘old’ and ‘young’), does not yield so vivid a shade as this, nor one so colorfast.
Additional reading: Hansen, Heather Nicole. The Quest for Quercitron: Revealing the Story of a Forgotten Dye. Master’s Thesis, Winter 2011. University of Delaware.
An award this year from the Friends of the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters, a National Historic Site, meant that the staff at Museum Textile Services have gotten intimately acquainted with a dress so central to this Cambridge, Massachusetts, mansion that it was worn by several generations of occupants over the span of a century. Made of bright yellow silk in pristine condition, the dress is adorned with black velvet and fragile lace trim over deteriorating layers of cotton bobbinet. During the textile conservation treatment, we took the opportunity to learn more about this dress in the Spanish style.
Certain elements of Spanish dress were well known enough to be co-opted for formal dress in France, England, and America. An 1855 Godey's story describes a hostess choosing a "fancy costume...of a Spanish lady"--the same description that Fanny herself uses. Ardern Holt's 1887 book Fancy dresses described; or, What to wear at fancy balls gives a number of Spanish-styled outfits, and a common theme--besides the high comb and the mantilla—is the use of black trim and lace, paired with a bold color. That Fanny favored this aesthetic is suggested by an 1834 portrait of her with a black lace mantilla against a red figured velvet.
The over-arching category of "Spanish Lady" costume, according to Holt, featured a "short satin skirt (white, red, yellow, or rose) with black lace flounces headed by bands of velvet or gold; low bodice of the same...high comb; lace mantilla fastened over it with red and yellow roses." An 1895 glass plate photograph of Fanny's youngest daughter Anne Allegra Longfellow (1855–1934) shows Anne wearing the dress we are conserving and matching this description almost perfectly, down to the mantilla and comb.
Further confusing the dating of this dress are additional images from the 20th century, one a painting and another a set of photographs. Around 1940, a portrait was made by American painter Marguerite Stuber Pearson of a young woman in the Longfellow parlor. Her hairstyle and face are strikingly similar to pictures of Fanny Appleton, who died nearly a century earlier in 1861, at the young age of 44. The Spanish dress has undergone some alterations since the glass plate image from the 1890s. Three tiers of black Chantilly lace can clearly be seen covering the stark white bobbinet on the skirt, as well as on the sleeves. Other additions we found, such as a pair of Naiad Dress Shields in the underarms, suggest the dress was also worn in the 1910s or 20s when that company was at the height of its popularity. Perhaps for a celebration of the centennial of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birth in 1907?
So could this be the same dress Fanny writes about in her 1839 letter? The evidence points to no. Judging from its silhouette and construction, this dress dates to the middle of the 19th century, probably between 1855 and 60. It has a three-tiered skirt, characteristic of the mid 1850s, and box-pleats, which experienced a renaissance around 1860. The deep bodice point and wider sleeves also grew more popular at the end of the 1850s. The 120” diameter hem was stiffened with a ring of plaited wood, possibly hickory, implying that it was made before the hoop crinoline came into popular use in the 1860s. Could Fanny have worn the dress before her untimely death in 1861? The answer is yes. In all likelihood, she admired the Spanish style enough to have more than one sumptuous dress of black and yellow in her lifetime.
Stay tuned for additional MTS Blogs about the dress's most striking feature—its bright yellow silk.
It's that time of year again! Fall is here and we are looking back on all of the exciting and amazing things that took place at Museum Textile Services over the course of the last year. This issue of our annual magazine is 50 pages long and has more features than ever, including tips and links.
Thank you for making this year the most diverse and fulfilling in our 19-year history!
Camille, Morgan, and Leah
The Coptic Period in Egypt refers to the centuries between the time of the Pharaohs and the Muslim rulers (roughly the 3rd through 7th centuries C.E.). Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E. bringing new technologies to Egypt including tapestry weaving, new types of looms, better breeds of sheep, and classical iconography. There was not only a shift in leadership in this period, but also a shift in religion. Egypt was converted to Christianity in the first century A.C.E. All of these developments influenced the imagery woven into their textiles.
Based on the iconography of the Bates College Coptic collection, scholars have suggested that they are among the large numbers of artifacts excavated by Albert Gayet (1856-1916). Gayet began excavating at the Coptic necropolis in Antinoé (modern day Antinopolis) beginning in 1896. He brought his discoveries to France where he sold them to collectors. The Bates College Coptic textile collection was acquired by Hartley through Dikran Kelekian, a well known collector and dealer. Kelekian and his son Charles sold batches of Coptic textiles to museums, colleges, and artists around the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Wheaton College. (The Wheaton College collection of Coptic textiles was conserved by Museum Textile Services in 2006.) Many of Kelekian's Coptic textiles were reassembled with adhesive and sandwiched between small pieces of glass taped at the edges before being sold.
Thanks to the foresight of Marsden Hartley, these twenty-three textiles are cherished by the Bates College Museum of Art, who is proud to continue exhibiting them in their newly conserved state.
One of the most anticipated projects to take place at Museum Textile Services in 2018 was the conservation of twenty-three archaeological Coptic textile fragments from the collection of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine. Originating from Antinoé, Egypt, these 1500-year-old textiles once belonged to the artist Marsden Hartley, who was inspired by their design and colors. MTS director Camille Myers Breeze first assessed the collection in 2006 and treatment was finally realized thanks to the persistence of museum curator Bill Lowe and a generous grant from the Coby Foundation.
Nine of the textiles were categorized as medium intervention. They were characterized by a large amount of adhesive reside on the reverse and moderate soiling. Seven of these textiles needed to be moistened with deionized water to soften the adhesive and allow it to be reduced mechanically with a micro spatula and tweezers. All of the textiles were then flushed with deionized water on the suction table.
Four textiles were categorized as high intervention, three of which were adhered to linen backings. After adhesive reduction and suction cleaning, all four fragments needed to be hand stitched down to a new backing fabric to preserve their structural integrity. One of the textiles was reunited with its earlier wool backing fabric, stitched to new cotton fabric, and also overlaid with net. Three textiles were found to be weak enough that we opted to overlay them with sheer nylon net to prevent against fiber loss and minimize the amount of stitching we needed to take through the remaining adhesive deposits.
An inherent part of the stabilization plan are the individual mounting boards Museum Textile Services constructed for each textile. Made of acid-free eight-ply mat board, each board was covered in grey cotton poplin adhered on the reverse with BEVA film. The ten low-intervention textiles sit passively on their boards with no mounting stitching, leaving both sides available for future study. The nine medium intervention textiles were sufficiently weak that they needed to be hand stitched to their fabric-covered mounting boards. After the four high intervention textiles were lined with new cotton, they were also hand sewn to individual fabric-covered mounting boards.
In the next installment of this blog we will go into the history of Coptic textiles, the controversial archaeologist who excavated tens of thousands of fragments, and how they came to be disseminated across the United States, particularly in college and university collections. Until then, enjoy this slide show of the entire Bates College Coptic collection after we completed conservation and mounting.
In Part 1 of this blog, Museum Textile Services Director Camille Myers Breeze shared her experience attending the opening of Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863) at the American Folk Art Museum. In this episode, we go into detail about the conservation procedures undertaken to prepare twenty early-19th-century painted textiles for exhibition.
The opportunity to address damage to twenty of the twenty-one most fragile textiles came about in 2018 when the entire collection was requested by the American Folk Art Museum for their comprehensive exhibit of watercolors, pen and ink drawings, prints, and classroom charts that Hitchcock created between 1810 and the 1840s. All were humidified and pressed where needed to reduce folds and wrinkles. Two textiles needed no further treatment and were repacked after humidification.
Five textiles had substantial holes or tears requiring full backings to enable exhibition. The lining material we found most compatible is Holytex, a nonwoven polyester that is light-weight, stable, and resembles the classroom charts in its slightly papery behavior. 1 mil BEVA film was ironed to the Holytex using a Rowenta Steam and Press iron set to 65 degrees Celsius. Higher heat caused the Holytex to curl and pucker, so we used additional pressure with the iron to achieve a good bond. The textile was first placed face down on an ironing surface. The adhesive side of the Holytex was placed over the textile and minimally tacked with a D&K tacking iron set to 50 degrees Celsius. The textile was flipped face up and ironed again from the front side, through a piece of silicone-release film. Excess Holytex was carefully trimmed from the perimeter of the textiles with small scissors.
The final stage of conservation was to advise the American Folk Art Museum on safe methods of display. From the very beginning, they expressed excitement about the potential of neodymium, or rare-earth magnets, the use of which we have been developing at Museum Textile Services over the past few years. After discussing ways of camouflaging magnets with paint or fabric, the museum came up with the perfect solution. Pairs of tiny silver-colored magnets were used in plain sight, blending in with the modern support systems of clear acrylic and black fabric-covered boards.
At the conclusion of this conservation project, Museum Textile Services conservators had spent ninety-four hours assessing, testing, cleaning, humidifying, and stabilizing twenty of the sixty-one known classroom charts made by Orra White Hitchcock. To see them on display, visit the American Folk Art Museum before the exhibit closes on October 14, 2018.
On Monday, June 11th, 2018, Museum Textile Services director and chief conservator Camille Myers Breeze attended the opening of the long-awaited new exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum called Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863). Curated by the museum's acting executive director as well as deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator Stacy Hollander, the exhibit unites nearly all of Orra White Hitchcock's cotton classroom charts along with manuscripts, botanical and zoological samples, and fossils.
Edward was not afraid to engage his students in geological controversies, such as the origin of the great sand and gravel deposits found throughout New England. While some believed they were caused by a Biblical-style flood, others argued they resulted from the movement of glacier ice. Likewise, Orra’s depictions of megafauna like mastodon and ichtheosaurus clearly acknowledge that prehistoric animals differed from those known in her time. The couple were openly supporting a belief that the earth is dynamic and changing years before the 1839 publication of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species (1859).
Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863) will be at the American Folk Art Museum through October 14, 2018. In Part II of this blog, we will go into the conservation treatments undertaken by Museum Textile Services to prepare the classroom charts for display.
According to author Carl L. Bankston III, "Social scientists estimate that there are between six and seven million Hmong in the world. Until recently, almost all Hmong lived in the mountains of southern China, Laos, Thailand, and northern Vietnam. Chinese oppression during the nineteenth century and the rise of communism in Vietnam following World War II pushed many Hmong into Laos, where about 300,000 Hmong lived peacefully during the 1960s. After the royal Laotian government was overthrown by Communist forces in 1975, about one-third of the Laotian Hmong were killed, another third fled to Thailand, and the remaining third stayed in Laos. Many of those who took refuge in Thailand found homes in France, Australia, or the United States. Overall, about 95,000 Hmong have settled in the United States.
In addition to researching the fascinating history of Hmong culture, I also spot tested the textile for soiling and bleeding of colors, luckily with few results. I then made a custom fabric covered board, and archivally mounted the textile by sewing it to the board using a blind stitch. I then framed it behind glass, using spacers to prevent the textile from touching the glass.
The Hmong textiles that I researched and worked on from the Museum Textile Services study collection are only the tip of the iceberg in an amazing array of things that I am learning as an MTS intern. I’m grateful for the chance to research and conserve something that spoke to me, and to be able to share this knowledge with others through the MTS Blog.
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