Holding It Together: Ribbons in NARA’s Records

In celebration of American Archives Month we’re looking at some of the many fasteners and seals found in records at the National Archives. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Even in the decades when the oldest records in the National Archives were being created, government clerks and officials had access to many different ways to hold documents together, including ribbon, pins, thread, sealing wax, and wafers.

This treaty is composed of several sheets of paper sewn together: the use of blue silk ribbon highlights the diplomatic importance of the treaty. Treaty between the United States and the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapho, Crow, Assiniboin, Gros Ventre, Madan, and Arikara Indians at Fort Laramie, Indian Territory, 9/17/1851, image cropped. (National Archives Identifier 12013686)

Government clerks usually kept a small, sharp knife at hand for trimming their quill pens. With a store of silk ribbon or cotton tape nearby, they could easily attach documents to each other by cutting two slits in the paper and feeding a ribbon through them. This would let them quickly bind several sheets together into a pamphlet, or sew sheets together to create a longer piece of paper if that format was desired. Some of the most visually striking examples of this survive in treaties, where silk ribbons that have barely faded with age survive.

Before the invention of stapled bindings, the “pamphlet stitch” was common to sew short texts together—though most used plain thread, not silk ribbon. After this treaty was printed, the sheets were folded into pages, and the pages were sewn together to form a pamphlet:

This treaty shows a blue silk ribbon used to attach a smaller piece of paper to the treaty:

While it can be hard to find the examples, some documents were attached or repaired by even simpler methods: threading a needle with a piece of linen thread, and sewing a torn document back together, or attaching papers with a loop of thread, as shown in this heavily-worn fraktur:

Next time we’re looking at ribbons and seals used for document security.

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