Monday, October 5, 2015

From the Stacks: Preserving a Dried Strawberry

We recently received a Twitter query related to the strangest items in archival collections. Meg Hixon, who did extraordinary work at the Clements Library as a Project Archivist, recalled that we have a dried strawberry in our James Caswell Knox Papers. This small berry was enclosed in a letter written by Catharine Knox on June 18, 1865, to her husband who was serving in Virginia with the 147th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War. While carefully wrapped in a scrap of newspaper, she made no direct mention of the fruit in her letter, so her intentions remain obscure.

The strawberry appears here in its original newspaper wrapper.

Its enclosure in the letter and its careful preservation over the centuries signal its importance. Did it represent the comfort of familiar summer-time fruits growing at home to a soldier experiencing the horrors of war?

We preserve all materials enclosed in our manuscripts, whether they be newspaper clippings, hair, dried flowers and plant life, teeth, dirt, pounce, or any other item. These objects can provide any number of insights about the writer, their environment, or the processes they used in the creation of the manuscript. Researchers who make use of our collections can help parse out their meanings, and in the meantime we are charged with the task of preserving these special items. We handle these conservation challenges on a case-by-case basis, trying to determine what provides the best care for these fragile enclosures. For this particular strawberry, our conservator created a custom housing made from cotton, acid-free paper, with a special pocket to prevent the brittle berry from becoming damaged by movement, which was then placed in a separate envelope. The strawberry's newspaper wrapper received a similar treatment. Using cotton paper, rather than Mylar, lets this fibrous berry to breathe and helps prevent the appearance of mold.

The strawberry's new housing protects the fragile fruit and helps prevent mold issues.


The collections at the William L. Clements Library contain rich information about the past, and these enclosures, sometimes whimsical but often revealing, add unique details to that body of evidence. 

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