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Family papers

Increased awareness of family roots and a mushrooming interest in Americana is focusing mounting attention upon the preservation of ephemera - old family letters, documents, records, and photographs; historic and decorative prints; maps and deeds; and other paper treasures.

Many of the paper treasures found in attics and other hideaways are yellowed, stained, torn, and in various stages of deterioration. Fortunately, paper conservators can restore damaged, vintage paper and add to its longevity. After careful professional restoration, a valued or sentimentally cherished print or historic map can once again be proudly displayed in a home or become a valued museum exhibit or research tool.

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Thomas Edmondson of Torrington, Conn., a former assistant museum curator apprenticed at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass., has restored significant paper possessions for the Peabody Museum, Mystic Seaport, the Connecticut Historical Society, and art connoisseurs and collectors. He says , ''While restorations have been made on paintings, bronzes, and other artifacts for thousands of years, the technique of restoring paper is relatively young.''

''It is,'' he says, ''a technology and an art that is very much alive and growing, and it will continue to grow for a long time. It is also constantly being scrutinized by conservators and scientists who work in tandem to determine the value of a conservation tool.''

Paper has many enemies - acid, wood-eating insects, and a too dry or too damp atmosphere. But it was generally believed for hundreds of years that age was the chief destroyer of paper. In the 1930s, however, William James Barrow (an American investigator of the causes and remedies of the deterioration of paper) discovered that acid was the chief contributor to its deterioration. It is the acid content of ink and paper that is so destructive to printed ephemera.

The exciting discovery of an old torn family letter or historic document with browned, barely decipherable handwriting makes us eager to learn the letter's or document's content. We are tempted to try home remedies of bleach, glue, and tape. But such attempts should not be made, for they are usually disastrous.

When such a letter of document is brought to a conservator, he analyzes the ink used. He makes a judgment as to whether the contrast between the paper and the ink can be inexpensively heightened, if a lengthy process is involved, or if restoration can be accomplished.

As a conservator, Mr. Edmondson cautions owners of old family or valued papers about improperly unfolding paper that does not readily unfold, or trying to straighten out stubbornly creased paper, especially if it is brittle. He says such handling requires expertise to avoid damaging the item.

Currently, Mr. Edmondson says, many maps for home or office decoration or for research tools are being brought to his Main Street studio for restoration. He tells of an 1850 colored map of Connecticut's northwesterly Litchfield County which was recently given to him for restoration. For years it had been rolled on a stick, and its varnished surface was darkened with age, cracked, and brittle. He cleaned its surface by soaking it in deionized water and says he gave it ''physical stability'' as he simultaneously retained for coming generations an enlightening segment of Litchfield County history.

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He points out that a conservator can clean soil from a map, replace the old linen backing with a new muslin one, and reinforce its tears, but he cannot reconstruct paper, even though he can increase the object's life span.

The cost of restoring a photograph, print, engraving, watercolor, or other paper possession depends on the time needed and the processes involved. Such restoration can range from inexpensive to expensive. But at times even a 19 th-century photograph can be inexpensively preserved.

The preservation of printed matter is important, for ephemera reflect informatively upon social customs, changes, and activities of former years. An old print or broadside graphically details the tragic plight of the slave during pre-Civil War days. An engraving from Godey's Lady's Book pictorially depicts that fashionable Victorian ladies wore gloves and bonnets that matched, and a souvenir program of a royal coronation brings added meaning to a historic event.

If difficulty is encountered in locating a paper conservator in an area, usually a major museum in the region or a state historical society can recommend or suggest a conservator who has restored paper for it.

For those who have not inherited or do not own paper treasures but are intrigued by them, popular ephemera shows, antique shows and shops, and estate sales often offer maps, prints, engravings, and even watercolors that are somewhat damaged, reasonably priced, and deserving of restoration. It would be imprudent, however, to buy a paper piece that does not have enough historic or decorative value or appeal to warrant restoration costs. But when you have deteriorating family or acquired paper possessions restored by a conservator, you are preserving for future generations an irreplaceable legacy.

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