Restoring One of Virginia’s Endangered artifacts: the historical recipe book of eliza breckinridge watts

This article is the second in a series of posts about the conservation treatment of Eliza Breckinridge Watt’s recipe book, which is part of the Historical Society of Western Virginia’s ( ) collection.  Eliza was a member of two prominent families with history in Botetourt County dating back to the Revolutionary War era. The Historical Society of Western Virginia was awarded grant funds to cover a portion of the costs of conservation treatment when their recipe book was declared one of the State of Virginia’s Top Ten Endangered Artifacts of 2019. The General James Breckinridge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution very generously helped fund part of the conservation treatment as well.

In my previous post, I discussed the issue of iron gall ink corrosion and the various concerns associated with it, as well as treatment of the recipe book’s pages, which are full of iron gall ink-based manuscript. You can visit the article and accompanying video here:

After the pages were treated to reduce staining and acidity, as well as ink corrosion, the treated pages needed to be resewn in order to reback and restore them to their original covers.  The original sewing structure involved a variation of overcast sewing of single sheets.  After discussing their institutional needs with Ashley Webb, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, I learned that the volume will be placed on exhibit in celebration of Botetourt County’s 250th anniversary.  The ability to turn the book open to a particular page and highlight a specific recipe was desired for exhibition in a glass case.

Knowing this, I was aware that the original overcast sewing structure would limit the ability of anyone handling the book to be able to open the pages wide without risk of tearing the pages and damaging the sewing structure.  Overcast sewing evolved out of a need for economy and brevity when sewing the pages of books together.  Although it was faster than many other methods, it did make it difficult to open books completely without posing a danger to the paper and book structure, as doing so would encourage tears to develop along the gutter edges of the pages, and weaken the sewing structure.

As a conservator, I usually make every effort to employ the original methods used for sewing historical volumes together.  However, I have made exceptions in cases where I know that recreating the original structure will cause harm to the book over time.  

Knowing about the book’s intended use and care, I decided to guard the pages into signatures and sew the signatures together.  This allows an attachment at the center of each page with Japanese tissue.  This attachment and sewing method makes it possible to open the book up and view the individual pages more completely and safely. Following are some images of the original overcast sewing structure and the new resewn structure with Japanese tissue guarding:

The process of disbinding the volume involves spatulas and often a scalpel.
The original overcast sewing structure.
The newly rebound volume, guarded with Japanese tissue, which now has the ability to open wide easily and safely.

After resewing, the book was rebacked with a toned Japanese tissue laminate, and the original boards and spine were restored.  The end result is a volume that can be safely handled with care and will be preserved for future generations.  It was truly an honor and delight to conserve this unusual historical book. I look forward to the opportunity to view it on display at the exhibit this spring!

The restored volume, which has been rebacked with a toned Japanese tissue and linen laminate.

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