New Online Exhibit: “Carting the Charters”

Empty cases inside the National Archives Rotunda, 1/5/1936. (National Archives Identifier 7820619)

Today’s post comes from Sanjana Barr of the National Archives History Office.

Even though the National Archives Rotunda was completed in the mid-1930s as a shrine for the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the documents were not transferred to the National Archives until 1952.

The National Archives History Office has produced a new online exhibit that explores the transfer of these historic documents from the Library of Congress to the National Archives. The “Carting the Charters” online exhibit is now available in Google Cultural Institute.

But what happened before the documents came to the Library of Congress?

The Declaration of Independence moved around with Congress from its creation until 1789, when it entered the State Department’s custody.

During the War of 1812, a State Department clerk packed the Declaration and other important documents into linen bags and moved them out of Washington. The documents were briefly stored in an unused gristmill and then kept at a private home until the danger had passed. 

After the war, the Declaration moved frequently as the State Department moved, often sharing office space with various other departments, including stints in the War Office and the Treasury Building.

Image of the Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence (National Archives Identifier 1656604)

In 1820, William J. Stone made a copy of the Declaration of Independence, using a wet transfer method. A damp piece of transfer paper was overlaid on the old parchment and pressed until the ink re-hydrated and transferred.

The transfer copy was then used to etch a copper plate that could be used to print multiple copies. Conservators believe this may have contributed significantly to ink’s fading, particularly the signatures.

In 1841, the State Department transferred the Declaration of Independence to the United States Patent Office. At the Patent Office, the document was on display in a room where it was exposed to sunlight and fluctuating humidity. This further accelerated the ink’s fading.

In 1876, the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia obtained the Declaration of Independence for six months. The exhibition in Philadelphia protected the Declaration by storing it in a fireproof safe when it wasn’t open to the public. 

The next year, it was returned to the State Department’s library. While the building was deemed fireproof, the Declaration of Independence was placed in a room where there was an open fireplace and smoking was permitted.

The moving around, and constant rolling and unrolling of the document to view it, all contributed to the parchment’s degradation.
Declaration of Independence as it appeared in 1903 while at the U.S. State Department, by L.C. Handy. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The State Department also used tacks to keep the document flat in its frame, which may have contributed to the tearing around the edges.

The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution on display at the Library of Congress, Randolph Daily, guard, 12/13/1952. (National Archives Identifier 12167954)

In 1921, along with the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence was transferred to the Library of Congress and put on public display.

At the Library, the parchment was kept between two sheets of hermetically sealed plate glass and protected by light-filtering gelatin film. It was later sealed in a case with humidified helium to protect it from air pollution.

At some point the Declaration of Independence was marked by a hand print and damaged by water (both of unknown and unrecorded origins). Historians, archivists, and conservators are still searching for photographs that might provide a clue as to when the damage occurred.

The Constitution has fared better as it was displayed much less. For most of its early history, the document was in the care of the State Department.

Between 1866 and 1875, the State Department occupied a building formerly known as the Protestant Orphan Asylum. The Constitution escaped unscathed from two fires in the building that, in the words of James Fenner Lee, Chief Clerk of the Department, “came near proving disastrous.”

In 1940, while at the Library of Congress, the existence of protein-eating beetles in the Constitution’s case and damages from variable humidity caused conservators great concern. Parchment is animal skin and is vulnerable to insect activity. Also, shrinking and expanding parchment with the fluctuating humidity could cause tearing or warping.

A Marine Honor Guard stands watch at its base where the original Declaration of Independence has been placed to commemorate Jefferson’s bicentennial anniversary, April 13, 1943. (Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

During World War II, both the Declaration and Constitution were moved to Fort Knox for safety. The Declaration briefly returned to Washington, DC, in 1943 to be displayed in the new Jefferson Memorial.

Although there were discussions about transferring the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence earlier, they weren’t moved to the National Archives until 1952.

The documents joined the Bill of Rights, which had been at the National Archives since 1938. Previously, the document was stored away in the State Department’s archives and largely forgotten.

Since the acquisition of all three Charters of Freedom, the National Archives has carefully controlled the humidity and light in the Rotunda to preserve all the documents.

In 1987, the National Archives installed a camera system to monitor the condition of all three documents. During the National Archives Building’s 2001-2003 renovation, they were moved to titanium and aluminium cases filled with inert argon gas.

The National Archives continues to update the conservation and protection methods for the Charters of Freedom so they can continue to be available for visitors for years to come. 

To learn more:

To learn more about the 1952 transfer, visit the new online exhibit Carting the Charters on Google Cultural Institute.

Read the “Carting the Charters” blog post that inspired the exhibit. And visit our website to read more about these founding documents.

The fall 2016 issue of Prologue magazine features the article “The Declaration of Independence and the Hand of Time,” which looks at the mysteries surrounding the treatment of Declaration of Independence.

December 15, 2016, is the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Visit our Bill of Rights 225 page to learn more about what the National Archives is doing to commemorate the occasion.

The Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution on display at the National Archives, ca. 1959. (National Archives Identifier 12169933)

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