Lincoln’s Final Decree

Not every project we work on at the Ford Center has dramatic before and after results.  Sometimes, the most important work we do is to stabilize an artifact for its long-term preservation.  Sometimes, the object doesn’t look much different from when it was brought in.  This was true for a document we treated for the Nebraska History Museum’s Nebraska Sesquicentennial exhibit.  It is a certificate appointing Alvin Saunders as the governor of the territory of Nebraska. The document is signed at the bottom right by Abraham Lincoln.  It is believed to have been the last document signed by Lincoln before his assassination. 

Detail of Abraham Lincoln's signature

Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Saunder’s document.  This is possibly his last signature before his assassination.

The certificate is printed in carbon black ink and has provided spaces with hand-written entries in iron gall ink. The certificate is directly adhered to a thick pressed paperboard support.  There is also a paper seal in a starburst design attached to the bottom left of the recto. There is a long hand-written annotation at the bottom that describes the origin of the document.  It reads:

detail of annotated note by Alvin Saunders explaining the significance of the document

“The signature of President Lincoln attached to this commission, was evidently the last official signature made by him.  He signed it just before leaving for the theatre, where he was assassinated, and left the commission in his desk without stopping to fold it; and when it was found when the room was opened after his death.  These facts were communicated to me by one of the clerks.     -Alvin Saunders”

At first glance, the document appeared to be in fair condition. Upon closer inspection, it became evident that there was a significant structural issue. A large tear through the board and the certificate was found at the top right corner.  It had caused the board to delaminate into layers which could cause further tearing or loss in the paper. If the damaged board had been left untreated this entire section could have easily broken off. There were also various punctures in the board, which penetrated through the front of the certificate, pushing the paper outward and causing minor structural problems.

raking light photo of certificate, showing surface damage and distortions, before treatment

The certificate in raking light before treatment.  Raking light is light at a low angle from the side which highlights texture and surface distortions, such as the puncture holes seen in the upper left corner.

To stabilize the document, it was first surface cleaned on the front and back.  The tear in the board was repaired with wheat starch paste and two thick layers of Japanese paper from the back.  The puncture holes were flattened and consolidated with wheat starch paste.  The pinholes were filled with cellulose powder that was lightly toasted to match the color of the paper and adhered with a reversible, stabile adhesive.  The fills were touched up with colored pencil.  This last step is purely cosmetic, but helps to visually integrate the important certificate.

After treatment photo in raking light to show repaired damage

The certificate in raking light after treatment.

While not an eye-catching transformation like the Creighton Side Saddle or the cavalry painting discussed last month, this document is an excellent example of the most important work we do: preservation and stabilization.  If objects aren’t cared for properly, they can be lost to future generations.  As we come up on President’s Day, it is imperative to keep and share the stories and objects of our country’s history.

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About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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