Conserving the Papers
The Dinwiddie documents consist of writing in iron-gall ink on handmade European papers. As the ink ages, acids and metals within the ink corrode the paper. The first visible sign of ink corrosion is "ink burn," characterized by ink burning through the front of a page and becoming visible on the back. Ink burn degrades the paper and causes mechanical damage, such as tearing and loss of paper.
The goal of this conservation project was to stabilize the documents by removing soluble corrosive metals and acids that destroy the paper. This was achieved by washing the paper in a series of alkaline baths and replacing the original protective gelatin sizing. After the paper was strengthened, tears were mended and fragments were reattached.
Threats to the Collection
The Dinwiddie collection has been stored in archival housing over the years since its donation to the Society in 1881. But because most of its contents appeared in published form in the late nineteenth century, major conservation work was never undertaken by preceding generations of archivists and conservators. Time and use have further threatened and destabilized the collection, and as the years have passed, the extent and costliness of conservation care has prevented the Society from undertaking the treatments necessary to preserve this national treasure properly. With funding granted in 2005 from Save America's Treasures, along with some matching grants, that proper care was provided.
Condition of the letter books
In the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Stevens placed the George Washington letters in a highly acidic scrapbook and probably had at least some of the letter books rebound. Each of the letter book volumes consists of a varying number of pages; each is threatened in similar ways; but each also shows varying degrees of deterioration. Primary considerations are the long-term effects of iron-gall ink degradation on the mid-eighteenth-century rag-based, chain-laid paper; the offset of inks through and to adjacent pages; the brittleness of pages from a combination of natural aging and the effects of corrosive iron-gall ink, with consequent page disintegration and text loss; soiling from use and the accumulation of particulate matter; and the well-intentioned but damaging effects of non-professional preservation actions taken by previous generations of owners and custodians.
Letter Book Bindings
The bindings of these volumes are made from poor quality materials that are so deteriorated as to be virtually non-functional. The bindings were, in fact, endangering rather than protecting the text blocks. In regard to the Washington letters and court martial record, the retained physical attachment to scrapbook sheets produced expected damage to the original documents and was the most severe threat to each item.
In addition, some of the same conditions seen in the letter books, such as soiling, the effects of corrosive iron-gall ink, and cracking at stress lines, further endangered these documents. The collection in its condition prior to the start of this project was virtually unusable by researchers.