Tag Archives: newspapers

In the Lab: The Charleston Courier, 1815-1851

My most recent project in the conservation lab has been a set of 32 newspapers, issues of the Charleston Courier from 1815 to 1851.  Some time in the past, they had been damaged by water, mold, insects, and dirt.  All of them had tears, and many also had large losses and were exceedingly fragile.  When they arrived in the lab, I could tell immediately that they were going to require a lot of work, but that they would also be fun and rewarding.  While modern newspapers are made of wood pulp which quickly degrades, turning brittle and yellow, old newspapers were printed on rag paper made from textile fibers like cotton and linen, and thus they are much more resilient and pleasant for a conservator to work with.

Charleston Courier newspapers before treatment
Charleston Courier newspapers before treatment

I knew I would need to do aqueous treatments, so, after cleaning off the surface dirt, I tested the inks to make sure they would not be soluble in water.  While the black printing ink was stable, most of the papers had a collection stamp in turquoise ink that was sensitive to water.  However, I was able to find three ionic fixatives, chemicals that are used to make certain dyes insoluble.  I tested all three, and one (Mesitol NBS) turned out to be exactly what this ink needed.  I used a brush to apply a small amount to the blue inked area, working over the suction platen to pull the chemical all the way through the paper, and then my newspapers were ready to wash.

Fixing soluble ink
Fixing soluble ink

Each newspaper was immersed in a bath of deionized water.  Extensive discoloration and degradation products were washed out, turning the water peachy yellow.  I changed the water in each tray until it stayed clear, signaling that washing was complete.  It was rewarding to see what a visual and physical difference there was between the washed and unwashed papers.

Aqueous treatment to remove discoloration and degradation products.  The upper left tray shows the extent of discoloration removed from a page in its first bath.
Aqueous treatment to remove discoloration and degradation products. The upper left tray shows the extent of discoloration removed from a page in its first bath.
Comparison of newspapers before and after washing
Comparison of newspapers before and after washing

After washing and drying, I had many hours of mending to do, and many little puzzle pieces of newspaper to put in place.  For my mends I used wheat starch paste and very thin Japanese papers which are almost transparent so as not to obscure the text on the newspapers.  I did not fill all of the numerous losses, but I made the newspapers more stable for researchers to handle.

Aligning tears to prepare for mending
Aligning tears to prepare for mending
Mending materials: wheat starch paste and lightweight Japanese paperMending materials: wheat starch paste and lightweight Japanese paper
Mending materials: wheat starch paste and lightweight Japanese paper

While working on the repairs, I was often confronted with fragments that would say something like “General / troops / fired” on one side and “congress / voted / article” on the back, and thus I would find myself reading the papers to know where the pieces might belong, which is something I rarely get the chance to do beyond a quick perusal.  The earlier newspapers had battle reports, as the war of 1812 was still going on.  The articles were fascinating, and the advertisements even more so.  Many were similar to modern ads:  houses for rent, job postings, theater listings, lost and found, dubious medical cure-alls, and sales of merchandise, often accompanied by decorative printed icons.  Some were a little more unusual and interesting, like an ad for “Daguerreotype Paintings” or a woman offering her service as a wet nurse.  But I was surprised to see ads for slaves, either for sale or wanting to buy, and many alerts for runaways.  The runaways were the most intriguing as they gave personal details of the individuals, and I found myself wondering what happened to them, applauding their escape and hoping that they found a better life.

Advertisements including a young girl for sale and a runaway slave
Advertisements including a young girl for sale and a runaway slave

When the mending was finished, I housed each of the newspapers in a clear Mylar sleeve so they can be handled with greater ease and safety.  Even after treatment many of them are still fragile, but now they can be handled and used by researchers with much less risk of damage.  And I hope they will be used, as they are fascinating!  To see more images of treatment and examples of interesting advertisements, see our Flickr page.

Newspapers before and after treatment
Newspapers before and after treatment

Post contributed by Grace White, Conservator for Special Collections, as part of our ongoing “In the Conservation Lab” series.

A Cartoon Version of John Hope Franklin

We are wrapping up processing on the John Hope Franklin Papers — more on that soon! — but I couldn’t let this project end without sharing a bit of its lighter side. Newspaper drawings and cartoons of Franklin popped up throughout processing, often having been clipped and sent to Franklin by his friends and admirers. Here is a case where we see Franklin’s reaction to one of his cartoons, shared with him by a friend in Raleigh.


The sketch in question appears to have been published as part of a syndicated comic strip in newspapers around the country.


Here is Franklin’s response:


“It is not the best drawing I have seen of myself, but I don’t complain.” Understatement of the year, maybe? Franklin’s friendly good humor is prevalent throughout his papers, which has made them particularly enjoyable to process over the past year. Stay tuned for more information about the conclusion of the Franklin Papers processing project.

Post contributed by Meghan Lyon, Technical Services Archivist.

Newspaper Superlatives

As they work their way through the Rubenstein’s basement, the holdings management staff have been nominating newspapers for superlatives. And the winners are…

The Journal of the Times — asserting its cuteness with a quarter for scale.

Post contributed by Jessica Janecki and the Holdings Management Team in Technical Services.


Dispatches from the Newspaper Project

One of our many renovation-related tasks involves re-foldering and re-boxing our fragile newspapers. The Rubenstein Library has thousands of American newspapers, dating from the Revolutionary War through the early twentieth century. Here is one of the highlights, from The Daily Express of Petersburg, Virginia, 1858 Dec.:

Part 1 of An Interesting Divorce Case: Beautiful Wife Prays to be Separated from Ugly Husband.
Part 2 of An Interesting Divorce Case features laundry, father-in-law insults, attempted poisoning, corn-and-beans throwing, dirty carpets, and Niagara Falls dunking.

Post contributed by Carrie Mills, Holdings Management Assistant in the Rubenstein Library’s Technical Services Dept.

The British Are Coming! The Printer is Leaving!

Among the many treasures of the Rubenstein Library is an impressive collection of nearly 3,000 historic American newspapers. As part of our major renovation project, these items along with all our collections are being physically prepared for their impending move. In the case of the newspapers, this is a particularly daunting task. Large in scale, centuries old, sometimes folded, and typically preceded, superseded, and sometimes paralleled with alternative titles, it is often difficult to know what goes together and in what order. While such changes in title and places of publication can befuddle those of us working on rehousing the collection in appropriate order, they sometimes offer remarkable clues about America’s history.

Take, for instance, the Massachusetts Spy. Begun by Isaiah Thomas in 1770, it was the first American newspaper geared toward the middle class.  While an average newspaper of the time might have 400 subscribers, Thomas grew the circulation of his paper to more than 3,500. An adamant patriot with close connections to John Hancock, Paul Revere, and other Sons of Liberty, Thomas used his paper to broadcast anti-British views and inflame the colonists to action. The British considered Thomas so dangerous that his name was on the list of twelve people to be summarily executed if captured.

The last edition we have of the Mass Spy published in Boston is issue number 217 published on March 30, 1775, less than a month before the Battle of Lexington.  Subtitled Thomas’s Boston Journal, Thomas included a version of Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon in the paper’s masthead.

The paper next appears in Worchester, under a new title—The Massachusetts Spy, Or, American Oracle of Liberty—and with a new masthead—this one proclaiming in large letters “Americans!—Liberty or Death!—Join or Die!”

While changes in newspaper titles and places of publication are common, the significance of this one cannot be overstated.  With tensions rapidly escalating in Boston, and with Thomas on the British’s most wanted list, the printer waited until the last possible moment to smuggle his press and himself out of heart of the controversy and to the relative safety of Worchester, some forty miles west of Boston.  And, when he printed his first issue of the newly reconstituted paper on May 3, 1775 he deliberately changed the subtitle and masthead to reflect the nature and urgency of his message.

On the paper’s front page, Thomas gave his own account of the dramatic events that unfolded in prior weeks: “I accordingly removed my Printing Materials from Boston to this Place, and escaped myself from Boston on the memorable 19th of April, 1775, which will be remembered in future as the Anniversary of the Battle of Lexington!” He devotes much of the issue to firsthand accounts of the battle, the first published: “Americans!  Forever bear in mind the Battle of Lexington!—where British Troops, unmolested and unprovoked, wantonly, and in a most inhuman manner fired upon and killed a number of our countrymen, then robbed them of their provisions, ransacked, plundered and burnt their houses!  nor could the tears of defenceless women, some of whom were in the pains of childbirth, the cries of helpless babes, nor the prayers of old age, confined to beds of sickness, appease their thirst for blood!—or divert them from their DESIGN of MURDER and ROBBERY!”

Given the rarity of this issue with its firsthand accounts of the very first battle of the American Revolution, I was surprised to discover that there are two copies in the Rubenstein Library’s newspaper collection.  A further curiosity is that each is signed by Thomas in the lower left-hand corner.

Closer inspection reveals that the signature is photo-mechanically reproduced, a technology not available in 1775. Both our copies are in fact facsimiles reproduced from Thomas’s own copy which resides at the American Antiquarian Society in Worchester, the nation’s third oldest historical society which Thomas founded after he retired as a printer and editor. The facsimiles were most likely produced in 1876 in celebration of the country’s centennial.

The fact that our copies are facsimiles produced more than 125 years ago is fascinating in its own right, and tells us something about the history of how this country has celebrated anniversaries. I do not know yet how these two copies will be boxed and foldered with other original issues from the Mass Spy; but, I do know that our newspapers will be ready to move out of Perkins in time for the renovation — just like Thomas was ready to move out of Boston in time for the Revolution.

Post contributed by Kat Stefko, Head of the Technical Services Dept. in the Rubenstein Library.