When working at a local history museum, the collections encompass a very wide variety of materials. As awesome as we strive to be, no one person can be an expert in all materials. This is how the Aurora Historical Society’s hairpin graveyard came to be.
Back in 1991, a very professional and well intentioned curator (that I’m still friends with today!) packed up a box of haircombs in a traditional way – wrapping each individual piece safely in acid free tissue, and closing them up in an archival box. Now imagine my dismay when 20 years later I opened the box to find the tissue is all slick and oily and partially disintegrating, some combs oozing, all the metal corroded beyond recognition and the bottom of the box littered with gummy and shattered combs remnants. The culprit? Celluloid Nitrate, aka Celluloid.
A little history on Celluloid – it is considered the very first thermoplastic, and was invented by Alexander Parkes in 1856. It was a good and cheap substitution of ivory and horn, and by 1870 was used to make haircombs. Celluloid was discovered to be highly flammable, and if you even LOOK at it wrong it will start to degrade. Wikipedia has a very good explanation on what happens to the celluloid with age and exposure to environments. Plastics, in general, are a very unstable lot.
The nice thing about curators is that they are every helpful, and everyone know someone that can help. Sam Gruber, plastics curator and Peter Verheyen, lead conservator, both at the Syracuse University Libraries, were very knowledgeable about my problem. Unfortunately, the damage to the combs in our collection is not reversible. And this “Nitrate poisoning” is contagious – the gasses (acetates – think vinegar) and moisture seepage from one accelerates the instability of combs in close contact.
As the first step to long term care, we documented and removed all infected combs. The loss of historic objects you could tell were once beautiful is a bit gut wrenching for a curator. We carefully cleaned and dried the remaining combs, and laid them out with plenty of ventilation. I periodically checked on them over the past few years to see if there was any further damage – thankfully there was none. Since they were stable, they needed a permanent, safe home. I realized it was a perfect 52 Lasers post!
According to our experts, plastic storage should be out of sunlight and heat. They cannot touch each other. And the key to proper storage is that plastics need to be well ventilated so that gas and moisture can not build up around them. Wrapping the pieces is right out.
I still needed to box the combs for their protection – unstable materials aside, they are delicate artifacts with many small teeth and decorations. Luckily, acetates are heavier then air, and settle in the bottom of boxes – hence why the combs and the bottom were in worse condition than the top.
My storage plan:
- laser cut several holes along the bottom edge of the sides of the archival storage box, to let air escape
- Install spacers at the bottom of the box, to hold the tray at least a half inch over the bottom
- Make trays that have airholes in the bottom to allow heavy gasses to sink
- Cut appropriately placed holes to tie the unique combs in place with cotton twill tape, keeping them in place without padding or wrapping.
I ran out of time to box our entire haircomb collection (which will likely take at least 8 trays to do), but the two trays I did do show the plan works! I created a tray design based on the one by Nancy Davis at the website “Storage Techniques for Art, Science and History” or more cleverly STASH. I liked their tray design as it incorporated lip at the top so you could safely stack trays and have a good space for marking tray contents and location.
It was easy to vectorize and customize the basic tray design for my size needs. We did a few kiss cuts to make the fold lines. The holes are all 1/8 inch, including the ones on the sides to loop in handles. The cardboard is archival e-flute and the corners are connected with pre-gummed acid free linen tape.
I customized the tray layouts by adding appropriate holes to tie the combs in place. They are designed to work with the the specific comb shape, therefore they are not interchangeable. This makes a permanent home for the comb, a statement that warms this curator’s heart. I marked the tray underneath each comb in pencil with their unique object ID number, and on the lip of the tray as well so they are easily identifiable without removing them.
The cotton ties are placed in such a way the comb sits snugly and can not move or hit the sides when the box is jostled, or in worst case scenarios, dropped. I’m confident they are going to be safer than they have been in years. This was a very satisfying project – I love when things are properly numbered, cataloged and stored!