Conservation of Historic Flags

Reprinted by permission from NAVA News 32/5,
the newsletter of the North American Vexillological Association

Conserving America’s “Civil War” Flags

What Museums do to preserve their treasures, and what you can do to preserve yours!

by Richard R. Gideon     

It streamed across many a bloody battlefield, and if dropped it was picked up to fly again. Its capture was deemed a disgrace, but if carried to the enemy it was planted with the kind of hubris that only a victor can summon. It was considered an honor to carry it into battle, but it always meant that the bearer would become a most conspicuous target. Its purpose was utilitarian, but in the end it embodied the very soul of who you were and what you stood for. Perhaps more than any other artifact of the Civil War, flags were not only symbols of valor, they were in many cases the cause of valor. Even today Civil War flags can still bring out the passion in a human heart; and they are considered one of the most desirable of collectable artifacts.

Few history buffs own Civil War flags, and the relative rarity of these items insures their value. Most of us will have to be content to visit a museum to see one, and even then it is usually removed from our immediate presence by a pane or two of glass. In many cases it’s a tribute to the museum professional that they exist at all. Made in a hurry, sometimes of fragile material, they were rushed into a harsh environment consisting of rain, wind, cold, heat and, not surprisingly, smoke and bullets. After the war they weren’t necessarily treated any better; many just “hung around,” or were furled tightly on their pikes and left to bake in hot display cases for years. Even well made flags had to suffer certain indignities; during the 1940’s, in an attempt to stabilize them, many flags underwent a special sewing technique. This “conservation stitching” process caused thousands of holes to be poked into the fabric while a patented quilting stitch was applied across the face of the flag. Afterward the flags became a sort of esoteric curiosity, and were of interest only to dedicated historians and vexillologists.

But fifty years later, spurred on by popular movies, television programs and the reenactment hobby, a renewed interest in all things “Civil War” has again drawn public attention to flags. Both public and private museums have spent considerable sums to preserve and protect their flag collections. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was one of the first public entities to employ textile professionals to conserve their State issued Civil War colors, and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, recently began a conservation project focusing on their collection of fragile silk flags. But just what is “conservation,” and how does it differ from “restoration?”

Restoration is that process by which an artifact undergoes treatment in order to make it look like its original condition, while conservation is an environmental control process that conserves the artifact in its present condition but prevents further deterioration. Conservation allows flags to be cleaned and stabilized, but does not try to make the flag “look new.” Fonda Thomsen, director of Textile Preservation Associates in Sharpsburg, Maryland, says modern textile conservation began when scientists employed the newly invented x-ray machine to peer beneath the surface of old paintings. “The first x-rays of paintings were done in 1910. It was discovered that many original paintings had been painted over in an effort to fix damage on the original surface. Scientists then asked the question, ‘what caused the original damage?’ They found that these works of art had deteriorated because of the environment in which the paintings were kept. They had been subjected to too much light, extremes in temperature, mold and mildew. By 1950 an international congress of art scientists met with the express purpose of creating a professional organization to deal with works of art. The art scientists felt so strongly that the environment was the chief cause of deterioration that they decided to distance themselves from the word “restoration,” which implies ‘fixing it up’ to look like the original. They chose instead to be called conservators.” (Conservation is a material science, and professional conservators are scientists. Graduate programs in conservation require a double major in art and science.) In the case of flags, conservation starts with determining what kind of fiber was used to make the material. An experienced professional can often look at a flag and tell what kind of fabric was used in its construction, but sometimes a microscope is required to make that determination. Conservators look for signs of powdering, acidity and brittleness in the fibers, and then determine the appropriate steps to be taken to preserve the flag.

Museums usually take this light exposure business very seriously, limiting the amount of time their flags are exhibited, and rotating their artifacts every six months or so. Light is such an important consideration that Ms. Thomsen’s recommendation to private owners of CW flags is never exhibit them! “Silk is one of the most fragile materials we have today. We have silks from 2000 BC from the Chinese tombs in beautiful condition. Why? Because in a tomb it’s dark; the environment (of the Chinese tombs) was stable; there wasn’t fluctuating temperature and humidity; there was no light; the pieces were lying flat, they were fully supported, there were no insects, and there were no people handling them.”

Rebecca A. Rose, Flag Curator at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, echoes these sentiments, and has this advice for those who own CW or very old flags: “The best way to store your flag is flat, in a dark, temperature controlled environment. Avoid large extremes of temperature and humidity; don’t store it in the attic or basement where there are extremes in temperature and moisture, and mildew can be a problem. Storage in the main living areas of a home is preferable, as central heating and air conditioning have made these areas a temperature controlled environment.” If a flag is large, flat storage may not be practical. In this case the best way to store it is to roll the flag on a tube, buffering the fabric with an acid-free, archival tissue. If the flag cannot be stored flat or properly rolled then the preferred method, using archival quality materials, is to fold the flag and store it in a box; but if you must do this be sure to buffer the flag, and avoid boxes with an acidic pH level. Acid-free archival tissue paper and storage boxes are available at most quality art or framing stores. If you want to occasionally bring your flag out of storage and display it Ms. Thomsen has this alternative: “I would suggest that the flag be rolled between two layers of a sheer film. [Textile Preservation Associates] uses a clear polyester film called MylarÒ ; what they encapsulate paper in. When someone wants to see it the flag can be unrolled off the tube, and it’s fully supported; no one has to touch it.” Like archival tissue, Mylar is available at better art and architectural supply stores.

If your flag is particularly dirty you’ll want to get a professional textile conservator to clean it (or at least advise you before you try cleaning it yourself!). Never throw it in the washing machine, and never send it out to be dry-cleaned. At the Museum of the Confederacy cleaning methods vary from a “dry” cleaning (not to be confused with chemical dry-cleaning at your local cleaners) and a “wet” cleaning (again, not to be confused with the washing machine variety). Museum “dry” cleaning often involves vacuuming; a coated screen is placed between the fabric and the vacuum wand to prevent the fabric from being stressed by the suction. Lose dirt particles are pulled off the surface without damaging the material. This is not your ordinary home vacuum cleaner; it’s a special low-pressure unit, with interior filters that collect the dirt for future analysis. “Wet” cleaning, a complicated process that should only be performed by a professional textile conservator, takes into consideration such factors as fabric type and condition, and the type of dye used to color the fabric. In one method the flag is given a “bath” in de-ionized water. The water is flushed and its pH level is monitored. When the pH level stabilizes the process is complete. Flags with painted artwork are particularly difficult to clean. At Textile Preservation Associates painted flags undergo a humidification process in order to restore pliability to the artwork and relax the fibers in the material. Humidification requires a special chamber and monitoring sensors, as the process must not only control the humidity (between the range of 75%-80%) but also temperature and time. Caution: don’t try this at home! A steam iron is not a replacement for a humidity chamber! In fact, one of the worst things you can do to an old flag is to iron it. Rebecca Rose agrees. “Sometimes people will see wrinkles in these old flags, and they want them to look nice; but that’s extremely damaging, particularly to something that’s 130-140 years old.”

Canton of the 13 star Stars and Bars flag of
the 32nd Tennessee Infantry Regiment–
Photo courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum, Nashville
Speaking of painted flags, some of the artwork on Union or Confederate flags was done by noted artists of the time and rival a fine quality oil painting. The paint used was natural resin paint, and the preferred media was Silk. The complexity of the painting and the requirement for a different device displayed on the back made for some interesting techniques. Some flags were simply “back-painted” so that the obverse painting appeared backwards on the reverse side of the flag. Sometimes a flag was made with a double canton, making it easier to make different paintings on the front and back. Other flags had a different seal painted on each side of one-layer Silk, making them particularly fragile. Some Union Infantry flags had two, fourth red stripes, so that the gold-painted unit name would appear correctly on both sides. In some isolated cases, particularly with respect to civilian flags of the time, painting or lettering was done on cotton, which was then appliquéd to a wool flag.

So now you know how to care for your old flag, and you’ve seen what museums do to care for theirs. But how do you know if you’ve got the “real thing?” What are some of the clues you can look for to determine whether your flag is Civil War era or something else altogether? Rebecca Rose looks for 1) zig-zag stitching, because Civil War flags did NOT use it, and 2) the restricted use of metal grommets. The zig-zag stitch first appeared on flags in the 1890’s. If you have a wool flag with zig-zag stitching it may be one of the many Veterans Flags that were made around that time. Metal grommets were used on SOME Civil War flags; as an example, oversized flags of 8 feet x 12 feet or larger, such as Navy or Garrison flags (and not all of them). But Ms. Rose says she does not have one example of any flag smaller than 8 feet on the hoist with metal grommets. One other item to look for is the quality of the “white” fabric in your flag; if it’s “photocopy paper white” it isn’t 19th Century material. Finally, while the Museum of the Confederacy will not authenticate or appraise your flag, they can tell you things about it that are consistent with the Civil War period or not. They try to help people do their own research so that they can establish a link between the original owner and the Civil War. Ms. Rose says she often sees flags that turn out to be post Civil War; it might be a reunion flag, or a Veterans flag, etc. If you do find out your treasure is post-Civil War take heart; these flags are finally beginning to get the recognition they deserve, and their prices are going up.

An interview with Ms. Fonda Thomsen, Director, Textile Preservation Associates
An interview with Ms. Rebecca A. Rose, Curator, The Museum of the Confederacy
“Advance the Colors” by Dr. Richard A. Sauers, Ph.D., The Capitol Preservation Committee
“Colours of the Gray” by Rebecca A. Rose, The Museum of the Confederacy
Brenda Giles, Director, Greene County Historical Society, Waynesburg, PA
Research materials of Richard R. Gideon Flags

About the author:
A former teacher and broadcaster, Richard R. Gideon is a vexillologist, and owns Richard R. Gideon Flags, an enterprise specializing in reproductions of historic flags.  In addition to writing about flags he is currently working on a flag book about America’s other “Civil War” – the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.