Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sewing on a 150-year-old Button

     I’ve mentioned before that displaying artifacts is a sort of balancing act.  I have to weigh the requirements for preserving and protecting the artifact with the need to have it on display.  Though the artifacts would last longer if kept in storage, they wouldn’t be available for people to see, appreciate, or study.  So, when artifacts are stable enough to display, I try to ensure that they are displayed in a manner that does the least amount of damage.  However, on occasion I do have to deal with damage to an artifact.

     Last week I was changing one of those pesky burned-out light bulbs in an exhibit case.  While I was in the case, I took the opportunity to inspect the two garments that were on display there.  Insects, especially moths, are a constant concern wherever there are textiles on display.  They often start “munching” from the inside of a garment, where they are not readily visible.  Fortunately, I didn’t discover evidence of any sort of insect infestation.
Here you can see the quilted green silk lining (which may have originally been black) of a wool Union Hospital Steward’s coat, with black velvet lining at the collar, and hand-stitched buttonholes. This was a very nice coat for its time!

     However, I had to very carefully unbutton the coat to inspect the lining, and in the process the top button popped off.  I was not a happy curator at that moment! 
Here is the front of the coat, showing the missing the top button.

The button itself was not damaged; it was the dry-rotted thread that broke. While the button was free, I took a moment to document the markings on the back. As you can see, this button was made in New York by the company Schuyler, Hartley, and Graham.
     My next step was to report the incident to the museum’s Director, and to document it for the museum’s records.  I noted the missing button and the date on my artifact data base, and took photos of the coat and the button.  This artifact is owned by the museum, but if it had been an item on loan to us I would have also reported to the owner.  After that, I was ready to plan for making the repair.  I had sewing needles and cotton thread in my supplies for occasions like this.  I opened the case again to get to the jacket one morning before the museum was open so that I didn’t have to worry about visitors coming through while I was working! 
Here I am sewing on the button. Though normally this is a fairly simple task, the gloves made it a little more challenging! For a different kind of button or for a simple repair just to the fabric I may have chosen not to wear the gloves. It is better to handle metal items, like this brass button, with gloves.

     While examining the coat, I had also noticed some puckering of the fabric along the front – you may be able to see this in one of the previous photos.  This coat has a somewhat rounded front, which is typical of other men’s coats of the period.  The form for the coat was not offering enough support to the fabric at the chest.  Since the coat was already unbuttoned, it was a good time to add a little extra padding underneath.
 I just added some layers of cotton batting to the front of the form, so that the coat wouldn’t pucker. I was careful not to add enough to put stress on the buttons and buttonholes though.

And here’s the coat, now with a little extra padding and with its button back in place! 

     Though I would have preferred the button to have remained attached, I am glad that it was a simple repair, and that many more visitors will be able to see and enjoy this beautiful coat.


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Embalming in the Civil War

     Last month it was time to change the display again in the Command Building at Ft. Detrick.  I received the request to feature a product or process that changed or developed during the Civil War.  I had a few options, but since the display was going to be installed just before Halloween, it seemed appropriate to highlight embalming!

     Although the practice of embalming dates back to ancient Egypt, the procedure was not widely practiced in the United States until the Civil War.  Since so many soldiers died far from their homes and their families usually wanted them buried at home, there was a need to preserve their bodies for the journey. 

     Another factor in making embalming known to the general public was the death of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth.  Col. Ellsworth was a friend of President Lincoln, and was also the first officer to be a military casualty of the Civil War.  On May 24, 1861, he was shot while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a hotel in Virginia.  Dr. Thomas Holmes, who is known as the father of modern embalming and who had recently opened an embalming office in Washington D.C., offered his services for free.  No doubt he saw an opportunity to acquaint the public with his craft!  Col. Ellsworth’s body was embalmed and displayed to the public at his funeral, and people were impressed with his “lifelike” look.  After the President’s assassination, Mrs. Lincoln even requested the same procedure for him.
A Harper’s Weekly newspaper from June 15, 1861 depicts the killing of Colonel Ellsworth.

     Embalmers of the time used a variety of different solutions for embalming.  It was common to find various combinations of arsenic, creosote, mercury, turpentine, and alcohol in these solutions.  Though effective for embalming, these solutions could be hazardous to the embalmers.  They can also still be hazardous to the curators and collection managers who handle some of the embalming artifacts!
This is an embalming kit which contains an embalming pump and the assorted needles, connectors, valves, and handles which were used with it. Embalming was performed by pumping embalming fluid into an artery, usually in the area of the thigh or armpit.

The doctors in this photo are demonstrating embalming to two Union officers, with what appears to be some of their work displayed on either side. There is some question whether those are really soldiers posing as embalmed bodies for the photo though! The setup pictured was probably typical of that found near a battlefield or field hospital.

And here is Dr. Richard Burr, an embalming surgeon who worked here in Frederick, shown embalming a soldier recovered from the battlefield. You can see the embalming pump in his right hand, and the tubing attached to it above the chest of the soldier’s body. Embalming tables were not usually available in the field, so here he is using a door placed over two large barrels.

     As the Civil War progressed, the demand for embalming services increased, and more people saw the opportunity to make some money by becoming embalmers.  Embalming fees varied and usually were based on the soldier’s rank, or the supposed ability of his family to pay.  Some embalmers would hang around the camps and promote their services – which was not great for morale!  Others would search the battlefields for the highest ranking dead officers, hoping to make money by contacting their family and offering their services.  Some sources claim that our Dr. Burr was not the most honest embalmer.  He seems to be fairly well known for price gouging as well as for reselling the same grave markers for locally buried soldiers.  There are even some stories which claim he robbed dead and dying soldiers as he searched the battlefields.  He was not the only one, by any means.  It was enough of a problem that in March 1865 the War Department issued General Order Number 39, "Order Concerning Embalmers."  This order required, “…all who embalm or remove bodies of deceased officers or soldiers to obtain a special license...”  It also set the prices which embalmers could charge.  Unfortunately, this order came late enough in the war that it had very little effect.
A closer look at General Orders No. 39, the Order Concerning Embalmers.

Here is the embalming display at Ft. Detrick, before the lid was put on. On display are a photo of Colonel Ellsworth, an embalming pump and attachments, the two embalming photos which I’ve included here in my post, an advertisement for an embalmer, and General Orders No. 39. If you have the occasion to be in the Command Building, please stop by and take a look!

Artifact photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Veterans, Zouaves, and Dolls

     Since Veterans Day is approaching, this week seems appropriate for writing about another one of my favorite artifacts – a clothespin penny doll from the Civil War.  At first you might wonder what a small doll has to do with Civil War medicine or with veterans.  These clothespin dolls were often made by Civil War veterans, sometimes while the veterans were recuperating in the hospital.  The dolls were a source of income for them and, as the name implies, usually sold for a penny.  Many times the doll clothes were made from the veteran’s own uniform or a flag – which can give some hints as to the maker of the doll!
Here is the clothespin doll, dressed in a Zouave uniform. The shirt that appears tan in the photo was probably originally white. The red, white, and blue coloring of the clothes suggests that they may have been cut from an old flag. Also notice that one of the doll’s legs is shorter than the other. This may indicate that the doll’s maker was an amputee, and that he made the doll to resemble himself.

     Both the Union and Confederate sides had Zouave regiments, so this doll could have been made by a veteran from either side.  The Zouaves’ colorful uniforms, which were based on those of the French Army, varied somewhat from unit to unit.  They usually consisted of a short, open jacket, baggy trousers, and a wide sash.  The headgear was often a fez with a colored tassel.  Though rather exotic in appearance, this uniform allowed the wearer a greater freedom of movement than with a standard uniform, and was better suited for warm weather. 
This is an image of an unidentified Union soldier in Zouave uniform, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Notice the similarities to the clothespin doll!
Here’s a closer look at the doll’s painted face. The black hair is still clear, but the facial features have faded. You can still make out parts of the eyes and the tip of the nose though. You can also see that the fabric is starting to deteriorate. This is why the doll is kept inside a box – the less it is handled, the less stress is put on the already fragile fabric. 
     If you'd like an even closer look at this doll, it is currently on display at The Lyceum: Alexandria's History Museum, in Alexandria, Virginia.  I’m sure this doll’s maker had no idea his little creation would still be fascinating people over a hundred years later!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Weathering a Hurricane

     I know that last week I promised you a post about Civil War embalmer Dr. Richard Burr, but it seems more appropriate to cover Hurricane Sandy this week!  I’ll get back to Dr. Burr in a couple of weeks.  I will also apologize for only having one photo this week, but I have been stuck at my home for the past couple of days.
Here is the reason I couldn’t get to the museum after the hurricane – a large tree came down across my driveway and brought a power line down with it. The tree can’t be moved until the power company can come out to secure the live wire, and they have a lot of other problems to deal with at the moment!

     The hurricane preparations started about a week ago when the weather reports indicated that it might affect our area.  At that point, the staff was alerted to keep an eye on the weather reports.  The museum’s staff contact information was checked to be sure it was current and was then distributed to all employees so that we could communicate with each other outside of the museum if necessary.  Each employee was instructed to double check that their work flashlight had working batteries, and we checked the status of our emergency kits as well.  Our Director, George, advised us to have the proper emergency supplies in our homes as well.

     When it became clear that Hurricane Sandy was heading our way, closing procedures were discussed and duties were assigned.  My job was to ready the galleries in the main museum for the storm and to check on them as long as weather conditions allowed.  The Pry House was assigned to Tom.  The rain started on Sunday night, and we got the official word that the museum would be closed to the public the next day.  On Monday morning the rain was somewhat heavy, but there was not much wind yet, so I went in to check the museum.  I double checked the doors and windows and brought in the flags.  I also put plastic over the two areas that sometimes leak during very heavy rains, and, with George’s help, moved the display panels away from those areas.  I walked through the galleries a couple of times that morning to check for leaks, but all was well at that point.  The radar was showing that more severe rain and wind were heading our way, so I went back home and George took over at the museum.

     My plan was to go back and check the museum again in the morning (unless called in sooner), but the tree in my driveway prevented that!  I did stay in touch with George and learned that there was only one very small leak in the galleries, which was not near any exhibits or artifacts, but was not in either of the usual areas.  He set up a fan to dry the carpet.  The worst damage was to the museum’s front door, which was ripped off its hinges by the wind.  Fortunately, we do have a second set of locking entrance doors, so the contents of the museum were not in danger.  The museum stayed closed for a second day though, while the front door was repaired.

     The museum is open now.  Overall, it seems we weathered the hurricane pretty well, with no injuries to the staff, no damage to the artifacts, and only minor damage to the museum building.  I hope everyone else was as fortunate and well prepared!