The JHSGW archives host a number of valuable historic documents that are part of our oldest materials. Among them is a Ketubah (wedding contract) that dates back to the Civil War and a German Reisepass (passport) originating from 1845. These records illustrate two very interesting stories of the Jewish community in the Washington area and have been used to document its history in many ways.
The papers weathered overseas travel, a war, and the fingerprints of quite a few generations, before they arrived at their final destination: our archives. Each of these events and the many people who had the papers in their hands left a mark in the form of tears, stains, and, well, schmutz.
While these “personal touches” may add to their charm and historic patina, they also threaten the documents’ preservation for future generations. Since we are building a new museum with a new exhibition showcasing our rich collection on Jewish life in greater Washington, we are eager to give some of our artifacts an extra polish. This way our visitors can enjoy them in all of their beauty.
That is why we booked a special treatment for these two historic documents:
Civil War Ketubah
This wedding contract ensured and outlined the responsibilities of the groom Henry Baum in relation to his bride Bettie Dreisfus. It dates back to November 6, 1862, a Thursday in the middle of the raging Civil War. The tumultuous and depriving time may have had an impact on the simplicity of the document. Sometimes, a Ketubah is beautifully decorated and illustrated; this certificate is kept pretty plain.
You can find more information about the content of the document in our online exhibition, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City.
As you can see from the before picture, the paper showed tears, stains, and deep folds, and was held together by tape.
First, the conservator gently dry cleaned the front and the back of the document with a special eraser to reduce dirt on the surface. The fragile areas and the parts written with iron gall ink were avoided as to not damage the writing or worsen the tears. Afterwards, the document was vacuum cleaned to get all the eraser crumbs off. The tape had to disappear, too, so our conservator used a hot-air pencil and a micro-spatula to scrape it off the paper. The residual adhesive was then removed with a gum eraser.
But how did the fold-overs get ironed out? Our conservator locally humidified them with ethanol and then dried them under weights and in between polyester boards and blotter.
To stabilize the mends, Japanese paper was applied with a solution of ethanol-thinned Zen shofu wheat starch paste. This paste of highly refined wheat starch, imported from Japan, is a natural and pure material used for repairing paper. After that, the losses were filled with Golden Acrylic toned Japanese paper that resembles the tone of the original document.
In the end, the whole document was humidified in a special little chamber and eventually rehoused in an acid-free, buffered folder for long-term preservation.
Here you can see the results of the extensive and painstakingly executed treatment:
This conservation project was rendered possible through the generous support of Janet Cohen, whose donation provided expert treatment by Quarto Conservation in Bethesda, MD. Janet reached out to us after finding her ancestors’ wedding contract in our online exhibition Jewish life in Mr. Lincoln’s City.
Janet Cohen’s support resulted in another exciting development! Through last year’s #GivingTuesday, we raised enough money to treat the historic passport from the Behrend Family Collection.
This German passport granted merchant Bernhard Behrend permission to travel from his hometown Rodenberg near Hanover to Frankfurt. Today, this trip would take about four hours on the highway; for Behrend it must have been at least a day trip if not more. Since Germany as we know it today was at the time a conglomerate of independent states, principalities, and cities, travelers had to get formal documents to pass borders and enter different dominions.
See this month’s Curator's Catch to get more information about Bernhard Behrend and the purpose of his travel.
The before picture shows many surface damages, stains, and various discolored tapes that held the pieces of the document together.
The first step towards a fresh look was to clean the surface using a hake brush. Similar to the conservation treatment of the Ketubah, the tape was removed using a hot-air pencil and then a gum eraser. Since these tapes turned out to be a little bit trickier to remove, our conservator had to try a few rounds until they were completely resolved. Cotton swabs moistened with an ethanol-based formula addressed the specific needs of the tape residues. In addition, applying a special earth powder helped to reduce further stains.
Afterwards, the document was vacuumed cleaned to get the powder off the surface. Using the same technique as with the wedding contract, the mends were stabilized and losses were filled with Japanese paper and Zen shofu wheat starch paste. Our conservator toned the infills matching the color of the document, evened out the folds, and rehoused the precious document in a new acid-free archival folder.
All this effort resulted in this final restoration to the right. What a transformation!
Through the support of these donors, the passport shines again: Ellen and David Epstein, Elizabeth Stewart, Constance Heller, Leonard Goldberg, Susan Berson, and Past President Dr. Michael Goldstein. We are infinitely grateful for their generosity.
These encouraging improvements are just what our collection needed. Yet, there is still more work to be done to make our archives glisten. Check out our Archival Wish List to learn about our most urgent collection needs.