Folded Up Like a Worn Road Map!

Folded letters and documents - everyone has them. We fold paper a lot, usually to make it fit in a smaller container like an envelope. Rolling is another way to handle paper, for shipping perhaps. Unlike plastic, for example, paper is easy to fold and it stays folded. And the longer it stays folded, it is less likely to un-fold. That is what I want to help you with in this blog. I was going to watch the origami world championships before it folded. But it was only on paper view. (I just thought I would throw that in.)

Paper is made up of a mash or slurry of fibers, flattened and dried to a solid form. Since about 1850 this slurry has been derived primarily from wood. When we fold a piece of paper, we break these fibers, sort of like bending a green twig that splinters at the break. You can try to straighten it but you cannot get all those splinters to go back where they were. Depending on the fiber size, the paper still retains some of its strength but everyone knows that a piece of paper tears more easily at a fold.

Here is a technique to help you relax those broken and splintered fibers so your old letters can be safely flattened without risking damage when you un-fold them. If you’ve read earlier blogs, you remember that I am an advocate of unfolding permanently. I don’t refold a client’s letters because further damage may be done. I have had great success unfolding with a simple humidity chamber made from household objects.

“Caution: Humidification treatment is not appropriate for all paper materials. It is strongly recommended that paper objects of high intrinsic, artistic, or associative value be discussed with a paper conservator before any treatment is attempted. Never attempt to humidify papers with water soluble media (watercolors and some inks’), friable media (chalk, charcoal, or pastels), or heavily textured media (oil paint). Do not attempt to humidify parchment, vellum, or composite objects (one piece of paper affixed to another).” (from National Park Service Conserve-o-Gram 13/2)

I use a six to eight inch deep plastic storage tub with a snug-fitting lid. I place an inverted glass baking dish in the tub as a platform for my documents. If possible, I carefully unfold the documents and place them on the platform with small inert weights to hold them. If they are too fragile, I place them on the platform as they were when I received them. If the document is rolled, I place it on the platform as is with a small weight to keep it on the platform. Then I pour about 3 ounces of water in the bottom of the tub and secure the lid.

I can begin to check after about 4 hours but often leave them overnight or longer. When I remove the documents, they have relaxed and have a slight clammy feel. I then put them, unfolded, on a flat surface singly between white cotton pillowcases or sheets and let them dry for 24 hours. When dry they are flat and ready for the next step in conservation.

I would encourage you to practice on some paper that you cannot hurt. This makes a great science project for school children. And remember no matter how many times you push paper, it remains stationery.

Adair Watters

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