Calendar Features

July & August 2002 Feature

Preserving the Charters of Freedom: An Update

Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Supervisory Conservator
Catherine Nicholson, Senior Conservator

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Constitution in 1950s case Page One of the Constitution in its 1950s-era National Bureau of Standards encasement. (NARA, photo by Earl McDonald)

Last July 4, thousands of people came to the Rotunda of the National Archives Building to view the Declaration of Independence, Pages One and Four of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. When the last visitors had gone, the Rotunda was closed for renovation, and the Charters of Freedom were secured in their underground vault for the last time. A few days later, these precious documents were packed up and removed to a laboratory for conservation treatment and re-encasement.

In the past year, scientists sampled and identified gasses withdrawn from the 1950s encasements that held Pages One and Four of the Constitution, as well as the Declaration and the Bill of Rights. Soon afterward, the encasements holding Pages One and Four were opened and examined.

Beginning with the historic words "We the People" and ending with a long series of signatures of delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, these pages are among the most familiar documents in the holdings of the National Archives. Conservators have painstakingly examined the ink text on Pages One and Four—letter by letter—to look for lifting flakes of ink and applied minute drops of a parchment gelatin adhesive to reattach insecure flakes. Further work included relaxing the parchment to soften distortions and undulations and return the parchment to a flatter state. Old tears were were cleaned and mended with stable materials. After treatment, the parchment documents were allowed to stabilize in a controlled environment that closely matches the interior environment within their new encasements.

Constitution out of case Page Four of the Constitution after removal from the 1950s-era encasement. This page was signed on Monday, September 17, 1787. Note the somewhat grimy bottom edge, a result of that section being exposed while the parchment was rolled at various times in the past. (NARA, photo by Earl McDonald)

This summer, the project to preserve the Charters of Freedom progresses with final sealing of encasements for Pages One and Four. These pages had been on display in the National Archives Rotunda for almost 50 years, and conservators could monitor their condition only through a double layer of glass and by checking readings from a 50-year-old leak detector.

While the materials that compose the Charters of Freedom seem somewhat esoteric today, they were commonly used in the 18th-century for engrossing legal forms such as deeds and other significant documents. The words were written out with quill pens, cut and shaped to a precise angle, using an iron-containing ink that likely was made by the scribe using his favorite ink formula. The slightly acidic nature of iron gall ink improved its ability to adhere to the parchment. Parchment, sometimes known as vellum, is the specially prepared skin of a small animal (typically goat, sheep, or calf), that is de-fleshed and de-haired, soaked in lime, and stretched under tension to dry. The inherent qualities of these basic materials—ink on parchment—and how they have aged and interacted over time have influenced the conservation treatment approaches being taken today.

During the course of examination and treatment, microscopic samples of parchment and ink have been taken from non-text areas, to permit further study and analysis. Information gained from the parchment samples will provide data on the condition of the documents relative to other parchments from the same time period. The Charters were written out with quill pens that are notorious for spattering ink as they move over the sometimes uneven surface of a parchment skin. The ink spatters provide a perfect opportunity to sample the ink, without disturbing the text, to confirm its composition as iron gall ink, which is typical of the period.

This year as well, conservators carried out additional treatment on the Transmittal Page and Page Two of the Constitution to relax and flatten the parchment, and they were encased in their permanent encasements in January 2002. Page Three of the Constitution had previously been encased in May 2001.

Transmittal page of Constitution on platform The Transmittal Page rests on its new platform; it is held lightly in place by transparent tabs along its edges. The extended handles retract under the platform after it is placed in the new encasement. (NARA, photo by Earl McDonald)

During the final year of the re-encasement project, treatment will be carried out on the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. All of the Charters of Freedom will be re-encased and ready for display in their new exhibit cases when the renovated Rotunda is reopened in the National Archives Building in the fall of 2003. The National Archives will have fulfilled its goal of ensuring the long-term preservation and permanent exhibition of these cornerstone documents of American democracy. The documents will be beautifully presented in a spacious and dignified setting and available once again to the American public.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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