Conservation of Confederate Muster Rolls

In February, TSLAC Conservation observed a significant milestone: the completion of our long-running treatment project on our oversize Confederate Muster Rolls.

TSLAC’s Confederate Muster Roll collection documents vital information about Texans who enlisted to serve in the Civil War.  These documents hold great research interest for historians and genealogists.  They state the soldiers’ name, age, rank, and place of origin; sometimes they list items the soldiers brought into service, like guns and horses; and sometimes they include payroll information. 

At some time in the early-to-mid 20th century, these documents underwent a popular treatment called “silking.”  A thin piece of silk was adhered to both sides of each sheet to hold brittle, fragile pieces together.  Unfortunately, we now know that silk is acidic, and acid causes paper to turn even more brittle and brown than it might have originally.

Starting in 2010, we have taken approximately 15 muster roll sheets per month into the lab to remove the silking and deacidify the paper.  We also stabilize iron gall ink with a calcium phytate treatment.  Tears are mended and the sheets are sleeved for storage and handling.  This treatment prepares the documents for scanning and enables in-person access in the reading room, which was previously restricted due to the documents’ fragile condition.

As we move on to work on other materials, we commemorate the close of this major project!

A de-silked muster roll awaits mending.
A de-silked muster roll awaits mending.

Testing Tek-Wipe

Tek-Wipe is a new treatment material that has been much discussed by conservators during the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation and beyond. TekWipe is a reusable substitute for the blotter paper typically used in washing treatments. Conservators have used Tek-Wipe to dramatically reduce stains and tidelines in paper, as recently discussed in an Iowa State University Library blog.

TSLAC Conservation was curious whether the detailed methodology of the ISU blog could be successfully repeated. In February, one sheet of a Confederate muster roll exhibited unusually pervasive staining and tidelines. A Tek-Wipe washing component was added to our ongoing muster roll treatment procedures in order to observe its effect on the staining.

Muster roll sheet before treatment.

Muster roll sheet before treatment.

The treatment began typically for our muster roll project. The item was humidified and sprayed with a 50/50 water/ethanol mixture due to iron gall ink corrosion. It was then placed in two successive 10-minute water baths, the second one conditioned to pH 8.5 with calcium hydroxide. The treatment procedure was then adjusted to incorporate Tek-Wipe. The item was sandwiched between damp blotter, Tek-Wipe, and spun polyester for two hours, as detailed in the ISU blog. After the first hour, the pre-existing silk lining was removed from the document. The item was then dried in open air and with blotters. Japanese tissue fills and mends were applied with wheat starch paste, and the item was stored in an archival plastic sleeve.

Muster roll sheet after washing with TekWipe and water baths.

Muster roll sheet after washing with TekWipe and water baths.

This after-washing photograph shows that the Tek-Wipe treatment had a negligible impact on stains and tidelines. Why might this be? Many of the stains in this collection are oil-based and ink-based, rather than water-based as seen in the ISU methodology. It’s possible, then, that stains of this nature remain unaffected by water-based TekWipe washing. Further testing might identify a different solvent that has a greater impact than water. Such solvents would require careful testing to ensure media stability.

Until more formal, repeatable studies occur, informal observations like these can add to the conservation field’s growing knowledge of Tek-Wipe treatment procedures. With further testing, documentation, and information sharing, methodologies can evolve to meet treatment needs.

Artifactual Value, Part II (or) What a Difference a “b” Makes

Last week, this blog highlighted a case study in artifactual value from Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, an account of late-19th century Chicago based on archival research.  This week, we’ll detail a similar example from closer to home.

In TSLAC’s documents from the Confederacy, I often note evidence of recycling.  Sometimes this evidence takes the form of non-traditional papermaking materials (see previous entry, “Barn Floor Paper.”)  Other times recycling is apparent in remnants of previously printed materials, as in an example from this week:

Confederate document with recycling

This Confederate military document features recycled pieces of previous documents, such as the printed “b” seen here.


I have long suspected that such recycling, especially in non-disposable military records, was an indicator of economic stress in the Confederacy.  Informal conversation with colleagues supports this hunch: a conservator working on Union materials at another institution notes that their paper consists of comparatively high quality stock.  Here again is an example of artifactual value.  The physical paper on which these wartime records were kept offers historical information beyond the written records themselves.

I recently found further support for this interpretation of Confederate paper in Cathy Baker’s 2010 book, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation.  Baker connects economic conditions in the South with scarcity in papermaking materials like rags, cotton, and bleach:

Just before the War, the South was largely dependent on the North for most supplies and equipment for its twenty-four papermills.  The chemicals needed to bleach rags for white paper for the Confederate government’s use or to process straw and raw cotton for news paper were only occasionally obtained from abroad through the Union blockades.  Few clothes and linens found their way into rag bags, and even if they did, they were often used for bandages instead of paper. 

-Cathy Baker, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation, The Legacy Press, 2010, p 18.

Baker goes on to quote an 1863 newspaper account of an Alabama papermill, which struggled to maintain production without critical supplies like felt and wire mesh:

The energy displayed by Mr. Winter in keeping his mill running is worthy of all commendation.  He showed us fine tapestry carpet which he took from his floors as substitutes for felt, without which his mills are entirely useless… The want of wire cloth has forced Mr. Winter to convert his machine… (which) very seriously curtails his operations in the amount of paper turned off.

Memphis Daily Appeal, 6/13/1863, in Cathy Baker’s book (as above,) p 294.

That small “b” photographed above conveys a message about the Confederate economy much more succinctly than the words in this blog entry.  This is the power of artifactual value.  With access to primary, archival materials, researchers and the public have a chance to read more than what’s written on the page – they can also read the physical record left behind by historical forces.

For more on why it’s important to support public access to archives, see Christina Manz’s post on the closure of the Georgia Archives in TSLAC’s Library Developments blog.

Conservation for Exhibit

Several items are in the lab this month in preparation for TSLAC’s Civil War exhibit this fall.  At many institutions, exhibit materials compose their own workflow for conservation.  This month’s items represent the strengthening integration of conservation with our growing exhibits program here at TSLAC.

Conservation work for exhibit usually combines item stabilization with aesthetic improvements and display planning.  The goal is to have the item looking its best and displayed in a non-damaging way.  Just what kind of work might this generate?  I’m glad you asked!

Military Board Blotter

Military Board Blotter for exhibit, before treatment.

The loose paper covering on this 1860s military board blotter will be re-adhered to decrease the risk of further tearing and to improve the volume’s aesthetics.  The paper tabs at the book’s head contain significant information; rather than being removed, they will be tucked down into the volume.  Most importantly, the book’s opening will be chosen from among the pages most relevant to the exhibit, with preservation in mind.  The selected opening will create as little stress on the binding as possible over several months of display.  The book will also be fitted with a cradle to further minimize stress at that opening.

Harper's Weekly Engraving

Harper’s Weekly hand-colored engraving of the Battle of Galveston for exhibit, before treatment.

This 1863 hand-colored engraving from Harper’s Weekly illustrates both the Battle of Galveston and the effects of tape repairs.  Treatment will attempt to reduce the staining left behind by this previously applied tape.  Stain reduction is a case-by-case effort dependent upon many unknown variables, such as the materials in the paper, the materials in the tape’s adhesive, and how those materials have aged and interacted in varying conditions over time.  Here, the age and condition of these stains may limit the treatment’s effectiveness; the tape’s plastic carrier and adhesive are long gone, leaving the stain to set for many years.  Special care will also be taken not to disturb the hand-coloring with solvents.

Regimental Return

Regimental Return for exhibit, before treatment.

Several items, such as this 1862 regimental return document, simply require flattening and basic mends.  This will improve exhibit appearance and also stabilize the documents to guard against further damage during handling and storage.  There are many items in this condition at TSLAC and other libraries and archives.  For them, exhibit serves as an additional selection method to bring them into the lab.

You can see these items and others on display in TSLAC’s lobby starting September 24.   Also unique to this exhibit will be a display devoted just to conservation – stay tuned for more.


Treating a Civil War Map

In July, I’ve been treating a hand-drawn Civil War map from the Sam Houston Research Center in Liberty, TX.  The document was glued to a backing board with historical annotations describing Burr’s Ferry, a site where Texas anticipated that Union forces would attempt to enter from Louisiana.

The hand-written annotations on the backing board raise several perplexing issues about the map.  First, the annotations indicate that a battle took place at Burr’s Ferry in September 1863.  However, other historical resources indicate that while a Burr’s Ferry invasion was expected, it never actually materialized.  Of further interest, the map itself seems not to depict Burr’s Ferry at all; it shows a region about 80 miles to the southeast, near modern day Melville, LA.  Though informative in their own way, historical labels and descriptions can sometimes raise more questions than they answer.

The darkened, brittle map was spot-glued to its backing board.  Over time, it had fractured around the glued regions and large sections had been lost.  Subsequent caretakers had responded by applying tape extensively across the front of the map and enclosing the item in Mylar.  Accordingly, this treatment offered many opportunities for physical and aesthetic improvement.

The first priority was to remove the map from its acidic backing board, which was exacerbating discoloration and brittleness.  The first step toward this was to remove the tape.  Fortunately, the tape was commercial Filmoplast of relatively recent application, and it was able to be removed mechanically.

Tape Removal

Removing Filmoplast tape

The glue holding the map to the board was water-soluble, and likely animal-based.  Local humidification through a vapor membrane was partially successful, but proved too prone to leave board fibers attached to the map.  Greater success was achieved with direct application of deionized water in a fine, aerosol mist.  Very slow, careful work was necessary to avoid damaging the map and to minimize disturbance to the backing board.

Backing Board Removal

Removing map from backing board.

Next, the map was washed and deacidified to reduce brittleness and discoloration, and to add a pH buffer to guard against ongoing deterioration.  Because the map was severely fractured, I used a flat, controlled washing method called blotter washing that relies on capillary action to pull degradation components into thick, dampened paper.

Fractured Pieces

The brittle, fractured map required careful blotter washing to avoid further damage.

After drying, the map was lined with an opaque Japanese tissue to hold the pieces together and fill the losses.  The tissue was toned with diluted acrylic paint to approximate the color of the map after washing.  The variety of shades in the mottled paper necessitated simply aiming for a neutral middle color.  I adhered the lining to the map with a reversible, water soluble wheat starch paste, working on a light table to align the many tiny, fractured pieces.


Preparing the map for lining on the light table. Losses seen here will be filled with the toned Japanese tissue lining.

The archivists and I agree that it’s worth keeping the backing board with its puzzling annotations.  Next week, I will surface clean the board and apply a deacidification spray to help control future brittleness and breaking.  I will also create a mat to support the map and assist in future exhibition.  Now that the map is more secure and stable, perhaps a future researcher can shed additional light on this document.