Monthly Archives: August 2013

What Survives

I’ve been watching silent films lately, and it’s made me so appreciative of them. Through old films, we get to see people and ways of life that have, for the most part, completely disappeared. “See that old guy in that 1924 film? He could have been born in the 1850s.” Crazy.

I am always fascinated by what’s still around after a long time. Look at antiques. Conditions meet, somehow, and we’re left with something that may have been considered garbage before. Now, in some people’s eyes, it’s a little treasure.

A European pin ball frame, dated to the 17th or 18th century. Though it's spent probably hundreds of years underground, the wool used as a pin ball remains glued to the inside of the frame.

A European pin ball frame, dated to the 17th or 18th century. Though it’s spent possibly hundreds of years underground, the wool used as the ball remains glued to the inside of the frame. I’m not sure if it was originally pinkish, or if that’s from the dirt. I like to think it was pink.

I’ve begun my own clothing collection recently. Someday I would love to work in a museum as a textile conservator, and I decided it would be wise to practice on some of my own garments first, to get some experience. Of course the project grew, and before I knew it I was scouring thrift shops for old things, and asking for donations from friends and relatives. My collection doesn’t have much that’s very remarkable or expensive in it, but it’s got tons of sentimental value, and I think it’s all fascinating.

A good family friend donated an entire 1962 full-dress US army uniform, and as I was hanging it up, I found a box in the jacket pocket. It was the box for uniform’s epaulettes – and the epaulettes were inside. As well as the plastic bag they came in, the ordering forms and the receipt for the entire uniform. On eBay this might only fetch a few dollars, but in my mind, it’s priceless little time capsule. Yeah, I know, it’s not crazy old. It’s still very cool, though.

The box I found - epaulettes, bag, order form and receipt.

August 11, 1962: epaulettes, bag, order form and receipt.

For the pin ball and the epaulettes, conditions miraculously met, and the stuff survived. As a conservator, however, I (will) have to learn how to bring those conditions together continuously and reliably. No pressure.

Here in southern Delaware, we’ve got bugs. Summers are humid and hot, while winters are humid and cold. These conditions are difficult to deal with since I don’t have a sealed or perfectly climate-controlled room to store my collection in. I’ve been racking my brains for cheap, viable ways to preserve my items. I’ve created covered hanging storage. I’ve bought packs of desiccant, which seem to work pretty well in our 100% humidity (“doesn’t 100% humidity mean pure water? Should I be drowning now?”). I bought a huge bundle of fiberfill and I’ve begun wrapping and padding hangers for the heavier dresses and coats (soooo tedious … ). I got a few yards of muslin and making my own garment slipcovers – archival materials companies, beware; I can make one for less than $3.

Or how about shoe support? Buy a pair of pantyhose and cut off the foot and part of the leg. Stuff it full of fiberfill, tie the top closed, and stuff that into the shoe. Voila, cheap shoe supports. It has spandex in it, but hey, it’s crazy cheap and it’s much, much better than nothing.

The Smithsonian has a few pages on textile preservation. One suggested that I could put cloves or pepper in sachets and store these near the clothing. The aroma is supposed keep pests away. I made a few sachets last week. They were easy enough to make, and they do smell peppery. I don’t think any of my pieces have bugs to begin with, but it’s a good precaution to take. So far, it’s kept some silverfish away. And it was certainly cheap enough.

.39 cents worth of nylon tulle, and a handful of peppercorns ... let's see if this works.

.39 cents bought me more nylon tulle than I know what to do with. I made the little bags with loops to go over the hanger hooks. I make sure the bags don’t touch the clothing.

Well, I’m not sure if I’ve created that ultimate mesh of conditions in which all my collection pieces will survive perfectly in. If I keep trying, it can only get better, right? I’m certainly learning along the way.

And because silent films are just awesome, check out A Fool There Was, with Theda Bara, 1915. There are a few versions on YouTube, none of which like it when I try to link them to this blog post.


But it’s a fascinating movie that’s somehow survived these 98 years. You’ve got to appreciate that.