Tinsel prints are a unique English art form from the early and mid-19th century. They are typically composed of metal foils, fabric scraps, leather, feathers, and any other suitable material glued onto printed portraits of actors and actresses.
Theatrical tinsel portraits have their roots in “patch portraits,” which were introduced to England by French prisoners of war in the late 18th century. This technique was embraced in England as a perfect home craft. Initially only the prints were acquired from the print dealer shop, and the metal sheets were cut out by the amateur tinseller to embellish his character. From the 1830s on this divertissement caught on so that you could acquire your embellishments in shops selling portraits and plays. The various metal tinsel shapes were produced by a gunsmith with an array of steel punches or dies that he would use for stamping out the different shapes and sizes, such as swords, helmets, spurs, or even minute dots to embellish the sword. These embellishments were varnished or glazed in a variety of colors, often red or green. 1
Today this form of art has become quite rare, the remains in some forgotten attic. But in 2003, the Folger Shakespeare Library received the Peggy Cass and Carl Fisher Collection of Tinsel Prints, consisting of 53 prints from the 1830s and later; this collection greatly expanded the Folger’s holdings, placing it among the world’s major collections of this art form. Actress Peggy Cass is best known for creating the role of Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame, for which she won a Tony Award and was nominated for an Oscar. Later, she was a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth and other television game shows. Her daughter inherited the collection, and gifted this portion to the Folger.
Before coming to our collection, the tinsels were on display for many years in a fluctuating environment and framed with acidic mounting material, causing heavy staining, corrosion of the metal foil, and extensive dirt accumulation. Since the Folger’s acquisition these prints have been meticulously recorded into our database system and photographed before removal from the individual frames. Many tinsels revealed 1940s newspapers from when they were framed; some were backed with pieces of wooden board and held in place by rusty nails.
As the paper conservator at the Conservation Lab, I took this project on upon the collection’s acquisition. There were numerous questions to be answered:
- Should the tinsel prints be treated to reduce their staining?
- How can we control the corrosion of the metal foils?
- How can they be housed and furthermore be handled by readers?
Soon after the collection arrived at the Folger, each tinsel print was digitally photographed in its “as is” state and removed from its framing. Erin Blake, the Folger Curator of Art and Special Collections, determined we should keep all the original 19th-century frames and one each of the later types as a historical record. With a visiting conservation trainee, each print was examined and its condition recorded into our documentation database.
Some prints were examined in the dark under UV light to see if we could find anything that was invisible with the naked eye on any of the various materials. I contacted textile conservators, since they often encounter metal threads in textiles, to hear their recommendations for treatment. Even though some tinsel prints were heavily stained with tide-lines 2 and darkened due to extensive light exposure, we soon realized that the complexity of materials present on the print would only allow for a very local treatment of the water stains or other stains. Due to the sensitivity of the metal foils and the intricacy of materials overall, not many treatment options were feasible without further jeopardizing the collage.
In the lab we decided not to reduce the staining at this time. But the prints were in need of housing to make the collection accessible to cataloging without further handling the print directly. To reduce the acidity of the background paper every print was deacidified with a non-aqueous spray solution from the back only, so as not to interfere with the front materials.
Each tinsel print needed to be housed so that the tinsel surface’s fragility and three dimensional make-up was carefully protected. We decided to mount each print onto an acid-free paper that would then be adhered on all four corners to a matboard support with wheat starch paste. A heavy weight top matboard has a bevel-cut window, slightly larger than the print, to allow each tinsel print to float within the window. The two matboards are connected with a hinge.
Five to six matted and mounted tinsel prints were then housed in an archival box produced to fit the dimensions of the shelf in the art vault, with a total of 10 boxes holding the entire collection.
Even without extensive scientific testing, but knowing the poor quality of materials used, we were concerned about off-gassing 3 from the corroded tinsel prints or the acidic support paper. In consultation with a renowned conservation scientist from Austria, we discussed gasses and other possible pollutants within the enclosure. Various products were considered, such as oxygen-free storage and activated charcoal. The latter was selected because it gave us a wide range of possible gasses to be adsorbed.
With Erin, we decided to add a two-centimeter-square piece of activated charcoal cloth to the back of each support mat in the immediate vicinity of the tinsel below, floating in the mat cut-out. This activated charcoal will need to be exchanged every five years to renew its adsorption capacity.
During the re-housing process, any loosened tinsels that were still attached were re-adhered with a non-aqueous, acrylic adhesive. At the top of each box we added an instruction sheet of how to handle the prints and a mylar sheet containing any loose fragments that could not be reliably positioned onto the specific tinsel print. Last, but not least, we added images of the back of each tinsel print, since these are not visible with the current mat mounting.
With the rehousing and stabilization of this tinsel print collection, we hope that scholars will be able to study our tinsel prints for years to come.
- The History of the English Toy Theatre, George Speaight, revised edition, Boston: Plays Inc., 1969.
- A tide-line is the dark line at the outermost margin of a liquid migration into a paper artifact. This darkened line is actually dirt and degradation material transported by the liquid; the dirt sets itself deep into the paper fibers, becoming difficult to remove.
- Offgassing refers to the release of chemical gasses from an item as it ages and degrades.