The Case Of The Vanishing Records

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In Springfield, Illinois, a historian doing research on the Pullman strike of 1894 asks to see the letters of Governor John Altgeld for that year. When he opens the packet, the letters crumble in his hands: some of the most important documents relating to the historic strike are unusable. In New York a biographer writing what may be the definitive life of the great painter John Singer Sargent begins going through the public library’s rare collection of contemporary reviews of Sargent’s work and the catalogues of his exhibitions. The material disintegrates when it is handled: the pieces of paper that could prove which of the paintings attributed to Sargent are authentic—a matter of increasing controversy—are lost to future generations. A writer preparing a history of photography asks the Museum of Modern Art in New York to show him the early work of the pioneering photographer Edward Steichen. The museum replies that it does indeed have some early Steichen pictures, but that his most important early photographs—those taken between 1890 and the mid-1930*5—were lost in his Connecticut studio before World War II, when thousands of them exploded from spontaneous combustion. A midwestern college giving a special seminar on American life in the twenties writes to various film archives asking for Theda Bara movies. The reply comes back that only two of the popular star’s more than twenty films still exist. The college then asks for Dorothy Gish films and is told that a number of her movies are available, but none of the comedies that made her a star.

These are all warnings of an astonishing fact : at a time when we pride ourselves on the volume of the record we are leaving to future generations—and indeed the volume will be impressive—parts of that record are nevertheless in danger of disappearing before our eyes.

The groundwork for this very serious problem was laid in the eighteen seventies and eighties, when wood-based paper became the most common material upon which man printed his theories and thoughts, and when cellulose nitrate film became the substance upon which he most often captured his image.

It was the highly civilized Moors who, in the twelfth century, brought papermaking to Western Europe, and there are official documents of the Holy Roman Empire on paper dating from 1228, though three years later the Emperor Frederick II forbade the use of paper for vital records, on the ground that it was not long lasting, and insisted on vellum. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the art of papermaking spread throughout Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and England; by the fifteenth century paper was superseding vellum. The appearance in the middle of the fifteenth century of Gutenberg’s movable-type press encouraged this change; it brought about an enormous increase in the number of books produced and a consequent demand for a plentiful substance on which to print them. The change did not go unmarked by the scholars of the day. At the end of the fifteenth century Johannes Tritheim, the abbot of the monastery of Sponheim in Germany, lamented: “Truly if writing is set down on vellum, it will last for a millennium. When printing is on paper, however, how long will it last? It would be surprising if printing in a paper volume were to survive for two hundred years.”

The good abbot need not have worried, for the paper used in his time was remarkably long-lasting. It was made of ground new linen rags or clippings from garment making, stiffened and bleached by alternate rinses of sour milk and an extract of wood ashes, and then exposed to sunlight. The result was a mildly alkaline paper with a life of from three hundred to eight hundred years. Indeed, perhaps the finest paper ever produced was that used for the Gutenberg Bible. In the extant paper copies (some of the copies are on vellum), the paper is in nearly perfect condition after more than five hundred years. The first paper made in what is now the United States—that produced by William Rittenhouse and his son in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1690 and used by the pioneer American printer William Bradford on his press in Philadelphia—shows few signs of deterioration.

A major change in papermaking came in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the increasing demand for paper outstripped the supply of good new linen rags. To supplement the supply, yellowed and deteriorated rags were mixed in with the pulp; to make the discolored rags acceptable, various strong bleaches were used. The most common of these bleaches was chlorine, which can combine with moisture to form hypochlorous acid, a substance that ultimately weakens the fibers of the paper. Thus, by the early nineteenth century the movement toward low-quality papers had begun.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had a beneficial effect on the quality of paper in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The sudden availability of new rags made of cotton—the purest natural cellulose fiber—ended for a time the need for harsh chlorine bleaches; and the paper manufactured from 1800 to 1850 was, on the whole, better than that manufactured at the end of the eighteenth century.