The Last Hands to Touch the Declaration of Independence

Today’s post comes from Victoria Blue, writer-editor in the Office of Internal Communications at the National Archives.

When Chief of Conservation Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler retires in July, the last hands to have touched the Declaration of Independence will leave the National Archives. She has been with the agency since 1985.

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Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Chief of Conservation, stands by the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Photo by Jeff Reed.

The Declaration of Independence was sealed in a glass and metal case in the early 1950s when it was still in the custody of the Library of Congress. It wasn’t until the Rotunda’s renovation in 2001 that conservators had the opportunity to take the Charters of Freedom (the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) off of exhibit and think about next steps.

“There was the opportunity to think about whether or not the original encasement was still suitable in terms of long-term preservation needs,” Ritzenthaler recalled. “There was a piece of free-floating glass directly on top of the parchment to help keep it flat, so there was some worry about that.”

Along with now-retired conservator Kitty Nicholson, Ritzenthaler removed the Charters of Freedom from their earlier encasements to perform examinations and treatments.

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Kitty Nicholson removes the lead seal around the 1950s encasement of the Declaration of Independence as Doris Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler look on.

“Over the course of its history, the Declaration of Independence was handled a great deal,” Ritzenthaler said. “From 1776 on, it’s traveled a great deal. It was on exhibit. In many cases, it was stored at the Department of State and brought up for people to see and to handle. And it kind of showed the effects of all of that over the years.”

Understandably, Ritzenthaler and Nicholson were a little nervous to unseal the encasements, given the status of the documents. They decided to examine the Constitution and the Bill of Rights first before taking on the Declaration of Independence.

“We left the Declaration until the very end because we wanted to build our knowledge and experience,” she said. “It was with a great deal of awe and kind of amazement that we were the privileged people to have this task. We were very fortunate. Not that many conservators or archivists in their lifetimes will get to handle such an amazing document.”

The conservators faced a number of challenges. Parchment is made of animal skin, which makes it very different from paper. Given its age and history of extensive travel, exhibition, and handling, the Declaration of Independence was not in good condition. There was also the challenge of opening the encasements.

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The Charters were carefully reencased after conservation treatment.

“There were always some uncertainties in opening those older encasements because they didn’t come with an instruction book, so we had to figure out our way,” Ritzenthaler said. “There was a piece of glass sitting directly on top of the parchment, so the worry was that, even though we did not have any problem opening the six previous charters encasements, would the glass stick to the surface of the skin? Or would there be any ink flakes that would have attached to the glass? Neither of those things happened, so we were very fortunate.”

The conservators did not wear gloves when handling the parchment. “That surprises a lot of people because wearing gloves for certain kinds of artwork and photographs is a very good thing to do because you avoid fingerprinting,” Ritzenthaler said. “But with the parchment, we wanted to make sure that we were handling it as carefully as we could, and, sometimes, when you’re wearing gloves, you don’t have the same manual dexterity. So care was our big concern—and our hands were always clean!”

As Ritzenthaler prepares for retirement, she takes with her the experience of being one of very few people on the planet to have physically held the Declaration of Independence.

“It touched me a great deal to have this opportunity to work on this project,” she said. “I’m sure that, in the future, there will be other Archives members who will have the same opportunity, but the encasements will last for a very long time.”

When the encasements were returned to the Rotunda in 2003, the National Institute for Standards and Technology estimated that they will stay sealed for close to 100 years.

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Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler stands in the Rotunda at National Archives in Washington, DC, in front of the Charters of Freedom. Photo by Jeff Reed.

“Working on all of the Charters of Freedom documents—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence—was exciting, amazing, and awe-inspiring. But the Declaration really trumps them all as one of the most significant items in our history,” Ritzenthaler said. “Being the last person to actually handle the Declaration of Independence is rather awe-inspiring. It was an honor to be able to work on that document and certainly the highlight of my career.”

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