October 29, 2022 | Last updated Nov 22, 2023

Cleaning Amelia Earhart’s Sporting License

The Conservators at the Ford Center work their magic on a piece of history from the Harry Truman Library: A sporting license given to Amelia Earhart in 1928.

Working in a conservation lab can be quite satisfying for two reasons.  The first, and most important, is being able to preserve unique items that hold historic or personal value so that they can be shared with future generations.  The second is that we get to touch history.  Handling an object that an historical figure handled is a humbling experience.

Earhart’s License Before Treatment, front and back.

One such object is the sporting license granted to Amelia Earhart in 1928.  It was issued by the National Aeronautic Association of the United States.  Not only was it signed by Ms. Earhart herself, but it is also signed by Orville Wright, the Chairman of the N.A.A., and one of the Wright Brothers who helped design the first airplane.

The license is in the collection of the Harry S Truman Library.  It’s a simple license printed on blue cardstock.  The photograph of Earhart appears to be clipped from a magazine as it’s on coated paper with text on the back.  The license was filled out on a typewriter and handwritten blue ink.

The license was in fair condition.  There was a tear and part of the paper was lifting where it had been attached to something previously.  The license was also disfigured by a dark brown adhesive that had hardened over the years.

The translucent block at the top of the image is a small piece of gellan gum.  That gum acts as a poultice which can draw up the stain in the paper while limiting moisture. 

To treat the license, it was lightly surface cleaned to remove any soiling.  The paper, print inks, and handwritten inks were tested with solvents to determine their solubility.  All the inks proved stable for the purpose of reducing the dark staining.  The adhesive residues and staining were initially reduced by gently scraping the top layer of paper with a scalpel blade to remove the darkest discoloration. This was fairly effective and allowed for better local washing results. The license was then locally washed using suction to help draw the staining out. Many of the stained areas required a poultice material called gellan gum, which helped to leach out more of the discolored adhesive than water washing alone could do. The gellan gum poultice was cut to the appropriate shape and placed on top of areas of staining. The poultice was left for periods of 5 to 15 minutes. The area was then cleared with deionized water on a suction platen. This method proved successful for stain reduction. Because the paper was deeply stained, some discoloration will always be visible.

Next, the license was humidified and flattened under a weight. And the small tears and creases around the margins were repaired and the photograph secured using appropriate adhesives.

Finally, a custom Mylar L-sleeve was provided so the license can be easily handled and safely accessed.

Earhart License after treatment.  Note the stain reduction on the front and back.

Whether we’re polishing Harry Truman’s boots or cleaning Amelia Earhart’s aviation license, it is always rewarding to hold history in your hands.

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