Going through a box of early 19th-century playbills recently, I was puzzled to see something paper-clipped to an area of loss on the right-hand edge of a bill, as if someone had attached a little note to it:
Looking more closely, it became clear that the paperclip was an attempt to mend a major running tear. Or at least, an attempt to keep the tear from getting worse:
Decades ago, someone had closed the end of the tear by sliding a paperclip over a folded a slip of onionskin paper. 1 While I’m glad that person reached for a paperclip, and not for the roll of pressure-sensitive adhesive tape that might also have been on his or her desk, the paperclip had to go. 2
Removing an old paperclip without doing additional damage to the paper is simple, but I have to confess that until Heather Wolfe showed me how years ago, I’d never thought it through:
As it happened, advanced conservation intern Ketti Angeli had been hoping to work on infilling losses in wove paper, so together with Renate Mesmer, head of conservation, the three of us discussed and agreed on a treatment proposal for the playbill. 3
Before infilling the loss, Ketti had to close the tear. In order to avoid adding bulk to the extremely light-weight paper, she opted to bridge the tear with a thin network of paper fibers drawn from a piece of Japanese paper. 4 First, she used a hard brush to rough-up the fibers on one side of a small strip of Japanese paper, then she set the strip aside. Working on a light table for better visibility, she next brushed a small amount of wheat-starch paste along the back of the tear. A square of Reemay® (a spunbond polyester fabric) underneath the playbill kept the paste from sticking to the table:
After placing the strip of Japanese paper rough-side down over the paste, Ketti sandwiched everything between heated blotters, placed a weight on top, and left it to dry. Once the paste was dry, she removed the blotters and peeled back the strip of Japanese paper, leaving only a thin layer of fibers stuck to the playbill:
With the tear safely mended, Ketti turned her attention to the large area of loss. Japanese paper could have been used again, but instead it was decided that antique wove Western paper with a similar weight and texture would make a more sympathetic patch for the piece, particularly after it had been toned to blend with the color of the playbill. Ketti prepared the playbill by lightly sanding the edges of the area of loss, thinning them slightly. She then made a pattern for the patch by tracing a shape a few millimeters bigger than the loss onto clear polyester film. After transferring that outline to the mending paper, she used a wet brush to soften the paper along the “cutting” line, then gently pared away the patch-shape using a scalpel, leaving the edge thin and feathery:
Using a minimal amount of wheat-starch paste, Ketti attached the thinned edge of the patch to the matching thinned edge of the playbill and left it to dry between heated blotters, under a weight. After drying, she used a scalpel to scrape away any excess in-filling paper on the back of the playbill:
The finished repair is visible if you look closely, but isn’t immediately obtrusive. Moreover, because wheat-starch paste is water soluble, the treatment is easily reversible, an ethical imperative in conservation today:
Technically, it would have been possible to make an even more invisible repair, concealing the playbill’s history as something that had been damaged over time. However, this would move further toward the “restoration” end of the continuum between “conservation” and “restoration” than seems appropriate for a research library. We want to preserve as much of the original material as possible while making the piece stable enough for handling in the reading room, and we want to make it aesthetically pleasing enough not to shock people if it is displayed in an exhibition, but we don’t want to presume to recreate the original. For example, after in-filling a paper loss along the top edge of the bill to prevent further tearing, Ketti did not in-paint the missing portion of the final “i” in “Rubini” — for all we know, the piece of type that printed the final “i” could have had a big nick in it, or the inking might have been poor, as was often the case with cheap printing like this:
Now that the tear has been closed and the losses along the edges have been filled in, the playbill looks quite presentable, and can be handled safely with only the normal precautions:
My only regret is that it didn’t occur to me to save the paperclip and folded slip of onionskin paper in the playbill’s curatorial file. That evidence is now lost to hypothetical future researchers investigating mid-twentieth-century attempts at stabilizing damaged works on paper. At least they’ll have this blog post to read — assuming that digital preservation keeps it available, that is.
- Onionskin paper was once plentiful in offices. Thin, strong, and heavily textured, it’s ideal for making multiple typewritten carbon copies. It also holds a crease beautifully; try to find some the next time you want to make light-weight translucent origami.
- Pressure-sensitive adhesive tape is notoriously damaging and difficult to remove, even if the right solvent mixture can be found. Over time, the adhesive sinks in and causes serious staining all the way through the paper.
- For the differences between wove paper and laid paper, see last month’s Learning to “read” old paper post.
- Traditional Japanese paper is hand-made from pulp derived from the inner layer of certain plant barks. The paper’s long fibers make it particularly well-suited for a number of paper conservation techniques.