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.
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