The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

How (not) to mend a tear

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:

Playbill with folded slip of paper folded over one side and held by a paperclip
Playbill for the evening of September 11, 1834, at the Haymarket Theatre, London.

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:

How to safely remove a paperclip: Press down gently on the hidden tip of the longer bend of the paperclip. Slip your finger under the tip of the shorter bend of the paperclip, prying it up slightly. With a firm grip on the shorter bend, pry it all the way up. Using the pried-up end as a handle, gently slide the paperclip out from under the paper.
Running tear temporarily “mended” with a folded slip of paper held by a paperclip.

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:

How to safely remove a paperclip: Press down gently on the hidden tip of the longer bend of the paperclip. Slip your finger under the tip of the shorter bend of the paperclip, prying it up slightly. With a firm grip on the shorter bend, pry it all the way up. Using the pried-up end as a handle, gently slide the paperclip out from under the paper.

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:

Applying paste along the tear (on the back of the playbill) with a fine brush
Applying paste to the tear, with the prepared strip of roughened Japanese paper kept handy.

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:

Photo of the strip of Japanese paper being peeled up after the paste has dried
Peeling back the strip of Japanese paper after the paste has dried, 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:

Patch ready to be placed over area of loss; scalpel, bone folder, and brush in a beaker of water near by
The prepared patch, with a thin and feathery edge eady for insertion.

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:

Tip of a scalpel shown scraping away excess in-filling paper along the seam
Using a scalpel to scrape away excess in-filling paper.

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:

Detail of finished infill, with the join barely visible.
Detail of finished mend, with the join barely visible as long as it’s not back-lit.

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:

Detail of top of playbill before and after in-filling showing that the missing lettering has not been painted in.

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:

Playbill with all tears and losses in-filled
Playbill after conservation treatment has been completed.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. For the differences between wove paper and laid paper, see last month’s Learning to “read” old paper post.
  4. 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.


  • This is a lovely repair job, but as as someone unfamiliar with the protocols of book/document conservation, I am curious about the decision-making process that goes into replacing missing parts, as opposed to simply repairing tears. I ask because I was recently working with some 14th-15thC documents in the UK’s National Archives, a number of which were missing pieces that may or may not have been important pointers to how they were originally used. I was reminded of a discussion on a late 14thC parliamentary petition that had a hole and tear along the top edge, generally overlooked in the focus on its content. The historian Clementine Oliver has argued the hole is evidence that this petition was not only presented in parliament but was also nailed up in a public place, possibly the Cross at St Paul’s. If true, this would have something interesting and important to tell us about public political discourse in late medieval London. That is a very different type of document, I know (and perhaps the difference between a printed text and a hand-written one is a big factor in how they are treated), but I’d be interested to know, are repairs sometimes *not* done to printed documents in order to preserve the integrity of their physical history (circulation etc.)?

  • The decision-making process about what to mend and how far to go is a great topic, so thanks for the questions! I’ll start looking for examples that can go into a follow-up post. You’re right that repairs are sometimes not done, but whether the item is hand-written or printed doesn’t enter into it except when weighing rarity: a manuscript is always unique, while (in theory, at least) there could be hundreds or thousands of surviving examples of a particular printed sheet.

    We take each treatment on a case-by-case basis, and generally err on the side of less intervention. For example, the Folger’s Curator of Manuscripts recently came across an early modern letter with a hole and a tear very much like you described. It was decided to repair the tear (to keep it from getting worse) but to keep the hole as-is because it was stable and, more importantly, because it was evidence that the letter had once been filed, in the early modern sense of the word (recall the OED definition of file: A string or wire, on which papers and documents are strung for preservation and reference. In recent use extended to various other appliances for holding papers so that they can be easily referred to).

  • amazing post. i am a paper conservator and what i am curious about is why did you decide to “lightly sanding the edges of the area of loss, thinning them slightly”? that is altering the original artifact. also, why use heated blotters to press? how do u heat them and what is the purpose of this?
    p.s. apologies if i come across as rude, i am just extremely curious and mean no offense.

  • Glad to know that you found the post interesting!

    I asked Renate Mesmer, Head of Conservation, about the technical aspects of your question. She said that lightly sanding the edges of the area of the loss, thinning them a bit, was done in order to make a smooth transition between the original material and the repair material. Keeping the overlapping part a similar thickness to the rest of the paper makes that area less hard and more flexible. Warm blotters were used because they absorb the moisture faster, preventing the paper fibers from swelling as much. The blotters were heated with an electric heating pad.

    As for the ethics of altering the original artifact by thinning the edges, you’re correct that this is something curators and conservators think about when making treatment decisions. Because we judged that this playbill is valuable to researchers and the public primarily as a playbill (rather than as part of the history of papermaking, for example) we opted for a treatment that would minimally disrupt the original material while still making it stable enough for researchers to handle, and aesthetically unified enough not to distract too much from the verbal content when exhibited.

    Sometimes we do opt not to alter the artifact at all. Instead we simply preserve it by keeping it in a cool, dry, dark environment when it is not being consulted by scholars. It might help to give a hypothetical example: the Folger has a study set of 50 different blank sheets of European paper dating from the 16th through the 19th century (see the Collation post Learning to “read” old paper for more information). If, hypothetically, one of these sheets of paper had the same kind of tear and loss as this playbill, we would probably opt not to mend it. That artifact’s main value is as an untouched sheet of paper from the early modern period. The tear might get a bit worse through handling (so it would be handled as little as possible), and the loss would be visually distracting when looking at the sheet of paper, but people would be able to study the fiber content and structure of the original without any contamination from later intervention.

    I hope this information helps, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk some more about the different issues that are taken into consideration when caring for collection material.

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