Preserving the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Today’s post comes from Morgan Browning, Senior Conservator in the National Archives Document Conservation Division. Visit our July 4th webpage to learn more about the Declaration of Independence and our celebration of it at the National Archives.

Few records created during momentous historical events are as compelling and influential as those associated with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The National Archives’ copy of the Dunlap Broadside printed on July 4, along with the real-time proceedings of that day inscribed in volume 3 of the Rough Journal, are tangible links to that day. Today’s post looks at the conservation treatment undertaken on both records between 2016 and 2018.

NARA Senior Conservator Morgan Browning removing the cloth backing from the Dunlap Broadside, July 22, 2016. (Records of the National Archives)

Two hundred forty-five years ago, on June 11, 1776, with American independence inevitable, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a formal declaration. The group members included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Jefferson was selected to draft the document based on his reputation as a wordsmith. Jefferson completed his preliminary draft within a few days; less than three weeks later, Congress formally adopted the Declaration on July 4. That afternoon, a “fair copy” of the Declaration, presumably in Jefferson’s hand, was quickly dispatched to the nearby printing shop of John Dunlap, the official printer to Congress.  

Working through the afternoon and evening of the 4th, Dunlap printed an estimated 200 copies that were quickly dispatched throughout the country. Now known as the “Dunlap Broadsides,” most of the 26 extant copies belong to institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Only two of the copies are privately owned. 

NARA’s copy was inserted into volume 3 of the Rough Journal of the Continental Congress by Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson. The Rough Journals are the “real-time” proceedings of Congress, and Thomson was careful to leave room for the broadside, which he later folded up and adhered to page 94 with wafer seals. 

Both records are remarkable survivors. They moved with the Congress several times during the Revolutionary War and later between the temporary seats of government before finding a permanent home when the government moved to Washington, DC, in 1800.   

During the War of 1812, both records (including the Charters of Freedom) barely escaped destruction when the British burned Washington in 1814. For the remainder of the 19th century, the records moved among various Department of State buildings. A 1903 act of Congress transferred the records to the Library of Congress, where they remained until 1952, when they were transferred for a final time to the National Archives.

The broadside and journal are part of an extensive collection of Continental Congress records held by the National Archives. The collection, which includes loose papers, parchments, ledgers, letter books, and journals, has remained remarkably intact for almost two and a half centuries. Given their historical significance, it’s not surprising that their preservation remained a priority for generations of historians, librarians, archivists, restorers, and conservators. The care provided for these two records and others from the Continental Congress since the late 19th century is evident by campaigns of historic and modern repairs found on each that reflect changing approaches and developments in restoration and conservation. 

Public and political pressure to transcribe the records and provide access to scholars led to a series of congressional appropriations made between 1889 and 1892 to “repair and mount” the records. These appropriations stand as the earliest examples of federal support for preservation and conservation. 

A Philadelphia bookbinding firm was hired to repair the collection and train additional staff borrowed from the Government Printing Office. Repair work continued on the records after their transfer to the Library of Congress in 1903. The Library had recently created and hired a chief restorer in 1899; by 1920, most of the records had received some level of care. While many of the repairs display a considerable degree of skill and attention to detail, they have not aged well due to unstable adhesives, overhandling, and poor storage conditions. 

Examination of the broadside revealed a number of instances of damage, including tears, splits along the fold lines, and small support losses that were later repaired in the early 20th century by lining the reverse with a piece of fabric attached with a thickly applied adhesive. The broadside was later reattached to the volume and, decades later, it was permanently removed in the late 1980s. Degraded adhesives used to line the broadside discolored the support to an even yellowish tone. Two additional condition issues included moderate deposits of grime embedded in the paper and a line of adhesives that discolored to a golden brown color. 

Treatment of the broadside began with carefully reducing ingrained grime by using solid and grated erasers, followed by washing the broadside by immersing it in successive trays of highly purified water. Washing the broadside reduced the discoloration in the paper and facilitated the removal of the lining and adhesives. After washing, the broadside was dried and flattened. Once dry, the broadside was examined to evaluate the efficacy of the washing steps. While most of the adhesives were removed, small deposits were visible on both sides of the broadside, necessitating further treatment.  

Enzymes were chosen to remove the remaining deposits because of their efficacy in breaking down adhesives. Samples of the adhesives were sent to NARA’s Heritage Science Lab for identification by Dr. Jennifer Hermann, whose testing revealed starch and protein-based adhesives. Enzymes were selected to target each adhesive and made into solutions that were applied to the adhesive deposits. After rinsing in highly purified water to remove the enzymes and adhesives, the broadside was dried and flattened. Final treatment steps included infilling small support losses with paper pulp, followed by lining the broadside to a sheet of lightweight Japanese paper. 

The journal presented a more varied and complicated set of condition issues: worn page edges, tears, small support losses, a range of repairs, and damages to the binding. White, gritty residues of a non-aqueous deacidification treatment undertaken in the 1970s were visible throughout the volume. The examination also revealed numerous minor damages due to the degradation of the iron gall ink text used to write the text and found on almost every journal page.  

Used from antiquity well into the first quarter of the 20th century, a typical iron gall ink recipe consists of iron sulfate, gallotannic acid, gum arabic, and a liquid such as water, wine, or beer. The mixture initially is pale in appearance but darkens upon exposure to oxygen to a very dark black or purplish-black color. Iron gall inks are very prone to degradation due to metallic and acidic components within the inks that catalyze degradative reactions, resulting in what is known as “ink corrosion.” Damages associated with ink corrosion include cracks and losses to the inks and paper. 

The July 4th pages, including the one to which the broadside was previously attached, appeared different from the rest. Both were severely discolored and embrittled by prolonged exposure to light or contact with acidic materials. The pages were removed and reattached to the volume on at least two occasions. Tears, detached pieces of the pages, and support losses were repaired extensively with various old and more modern materials, including pressure-sensitive tape.  

Treatment of the journal was a joint effort with former NARA Senior Book Conservator Vicki Lee (now a NARA Supervisory Conservator in St. Louis), whose assistance was critical to this project.  The badly damaged July 4th pages were treated first before working on the rest of the volume. After surface-cleaning the pages, pressure-sensitive tapes were removed with a heated spatula and solvents. Extensive washing in highly purified water reduced acidity, discoloration, and ink degradation products from the paper and facilitated the removal of previous repairs.  

Page 94 of the Rough Journal during treatment. This image shows the page following removal of the old repairs and washing. (Records of the Confederation and Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention)

The cleaned pages were repaired and reinforced with various Japanese papers adhered with wheat starch paste. Support losses were infilled with paper pulp toned to match the surrounding original paper. While the condition of the pages improved considerably by this point, they were still quite fragile and needed further reinforcement. Sheets of the thinnest paper available were adhered to both sides of the pages with wheat starch paste. The paper, produced in Japan, has long fibers that provide exceptional support for the fragile pages. The paper is so thin and transparent that it is almost invisible when adhered to the pages. With their strength and flexibility greatly improved, the pages can be safely turned without damaging them.   

The pages of the Rough Journal were washed to remove acidity and discoloration. (Records of the National Archives)

Treatment of the volume began by carefully removing the cover from the text block. The text block is composed of folios (sheets of paper folded in half) that are arranged in groups known as “signatures” and sewn together. Close examination revealed the partial disbinding of the volume that occurred during the previous treatment. As the volume was disbound, the sewing structure was carefully documented so that it could be replicated during rebinding. 

Senior Conservators Vicki Lee and Morgan Browning repairing pages from the Rough Journal. (Records of the National Archives)

The signatures of the text block were treated separately, one after another. They were surface-cleaned and then washed in highly purified water in the same manner as described earlier. After drying and flattening, they were resized with a dilute gelatin solution to replace gelatin sizing lost during treatment with water and then dried and flattened again. During manufacture, paper is sized to decrease porosity so that inks and other media applied to it remain on the surface rather than sinking or bleeding into the paper. Sizing also strengthens paper and is known to inhibit the degradation of iron gall ink. 

Extensive repairs were completed to address tears and ink corrosion; before rebinding, the July 4th pages were returned to their original folio formats. Each folio within the text block was reinforced or “guarded” along its fold with Japanese paper adhered with wheat starch paste to strengthen them before rebinding. With the text block reassembled and sewn, the cover was reattached to the text block. 

The pages of the Rough Journal were repaired with various lightweight Japanese papers adhered with a refined wheat starch paste. (Records of the National Archives)

Conservation treatment of the broadside and journal proved beneficial on many levels. After treatment, the visual appearance of the records is much improved, as is their chemical and physical stability. Both will undoubtedly continue to amaze and inspire well into the next 250 years with their preservation ensured. 

Learn more in our video The Dunlap Broadside and the Fourth of July:

3 thoughts on “Preserving the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

  1. Morgan: Many thanks for writing this fascinating article. Please write more. I need to visit the archives (when you open) to see more of your work.
    Best regards

  2. I am really torn concerning this salvage proceeding. While it is great to have the documents restored to nearly their original look their history has been destroyed by this process. The United States of America has been through a lot over the past 250 years and, hopefully, there has been no effort to sanitize this. These documents were prepared by or by the direction of our founders and have made this journey along with all of us. Sanitization destroys the evidence of that history.

    1. I am very disappointed to read your comments, Mr. Roth. I am more than happy to discuss your concerns regarding the work completed on this particular volume. Conservation treatment completed was necessary to ensure its future preservation. The conservation treatment plan was thoroughly vetted and was approved by NARA’s supervisory conservation and archival staff. Furthermore, the treatment protocols I followed are supported by scientific research completed by heritage science professionals. I have worked with historic American documents for over 25 years; I am also a professional member and officer of the American Institute for Conservation, and one of three paper conservators in the US who are accredited by the Institute of Conservation (UK). In short, this work was completed up to and beyond accepted treatment protocols that are practiced by institutions both in the US and abroad.

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