From Flat to Fluffy: The Conservation of Rabbi Szold’s hat

Posted on November 7th, 2013 by

If you are too young to know about Breck shampoo—or if you just want to reminisce about 1970s hair products—check out this Youtube video. 

Incorporating original objects from the JMM permanent collection in exhibitions—especially traveling exhibitions—is an important way to bring the focus to Jewish life in Maryland. This was particularly true with Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War. Maryland was truly a boarder state during the Civil War and Jews were as divided as other groups when choosing sides. While I knew about his role on the pulpit in Baltimore, I was surprised to learn that Rabbi Benjamin Szold was asked to intercede on behalf of Private George Kuhn, a young Jewish Union deserter. Although Szold was unsuccessful, he remained with the young man until he was executed.

You can see an original copy of this Harper’s Weekly depicting the aforementioned execution in the Passages through Fire exhibition.

You can see an original copy of this Harper’s Weekly depicting the aforementioned execution in the Passages through Fire exhibition.

In addition to the trunk that Szold used when he emigrated from Breslau, the Museum also owns the black velvet hat he wore at about the time he was recruited by Temple Oheb Shalom in 1859. This artifact was perfect for the The Minhag America section of the exhibition, explaining the diverse practices in each Jewish community at the start of the Civil War.

1998.115.2  A portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Szold

1998.115.2 A portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Szold

Unfortunately, the hat was in poor condition and could not be exhibited without conservation. As evidenced in the photo below, the velvet was completely split, and falling off the hat to expose a yellow/brown padding structure beneath, which too had tears, soiling, and damage. In addition to holes, the shape of the hat was distorted and crushed, and there was a considerable amount of dust accumulated across the surface!

Demonstrating that the black velvet is literally being held on by a thread.

Demonstrating that the black velvet is literally being held on by a thread.

 It looks like a toupee!

It looks like a toupee!

Conservation work can be time consuming and expensive—which is why the JMM only conserves select items, usually in conjunction with an exhibition. The American Institution of Conservation website was helpful in identifying specialized conservators by location. After we approved her treatment proposal, textile conservator Julia Brennan worked on Rabbi Szold’s hat. In her treatment report Julia explained the process of her work:

·         The hat was humidified over several days in an enclosed chamber to slowly introduce moisture into the fabric. This made the hat more malleable, and throughout the humidification process it was gradually manipulated from its collapsed shape to its original shape. As the hat softened, it was gently filled out with tissue to hold the shape.

·         The hat really took its original shape and the velvet is much more relaxed and supple.

·         Large, split areas of the hat were lined with black cotton for stability. The split edges were then re-aligned and hand sewn to the black cotton with hand stitching, using a color-matched Skala thread. It was necessary to have the supports, as the velvet edges are too brittle to attach to each other.

Left, a split, broken area lined with black cotton. Right, the area stitched back into place. A small seam of the cotton is visible.

Left, a split, broken area lined with black cotton. Right, the area stitched back into place. A small seam of the cotton is visible.

·         In a large area where the velvet was missing entirely, a new piece of carefully matched black velvet was inserted and stitched into place with hand stitching. This fills the hole, and makes the hat more complete and attractive.

Left, a large hole in the hat. Right, the hole with new black velvet inserted to mask the hole.

Left, a large hole in the hat. Right, the hole with new black velvet inserted to mask the hole.

Our biggest concern with the Szold hat was whether it would be stable enough for exhibition after treatment. In addition to conserving the hat, Julia built a custom support to keep it in its original, stable shape. The support consists of four parts:

1. A “donut” made of cotton stockinette and batting, exactly fitting the main body of the hat. This will prevent the velvet from the stress of collapsing, which contributed to the original splits.

2. A small, dome shaped piece made of ethafoam and batting, covered in a non-abrasive black stretch fabric. This supports the center of the body of the hat, which the donut does not support.

3. A flat disc made of ethafoam, batting, and black stretch fabric fit to the exact dimensions of the hat brim. This keeps the brim straight, preventing further wrinkling and making current wrinkling less obvious.

4. A second, taller disc for the entire supported hat to sit on, also made of ethafoam, batting, and covered in a cream colored stretch fabric. This elevates the hat when its other support pieces are in place so the brim does not touch the resting surface. It can also be used for display purposes. Or not.

Interior Support

Interior Support

Right Side Up

Right Side Up

The hat has undergone a complete transformation! It is no longer limp and torn. It’s gone from Flat to Fluffy.

In the “Results and Recommendations” section of her report Julia cautions that the velvet is still extremely brittle, an irreversible problem. Some small splits remain in the velvet because the repair process is so stressful to the fabric that repairing them would cause more harm than good. The hat must be handled with extreme delicacy and caution, or more splits will occur, and current splits may get larger. The hat should be kept in a carefully monitored environment with low light. Cleaning should only be done by a conservation professional due to the delicacy of the fabric.

I got this travel sized Breck shampoo when I stayed at the Channel Inn in DC for the MAAM conference in October. It really makes your hair fluffy! Just don’t use it on historic artifacts.

I got this travel sized Breck shampoo when I stayed at the Channel Inn in DC for the MAAM conference in October. It really makes your hair fluffy! Just don’t use it on historic artifacts.

Rabbi Szold’s hat is on view in the Passages through the Fire exhibition on view now at the JMM. Funding for this important project was made possible by the Associated.

JobiA blog post by Senior Collections Manager Jobi Zink. To read more posts by Jobi click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A dingy basement, a gilded age

Posted on August 24th, 2012 by

A blog post by Summer Intern Kierra Foley.

In the past several weeks, all the interns working in collections have been pulled from their respective areas of expertise (mine being the collections related to the Lloyd Street Synagogue) in order to work collectively on object inventory – a huge undertaking that occurs every three years, during which every object housed in this museum is located and documented.

As the intern known for her marked high heel penchant, it came as no surprise to my colleagues that I took a particular interest in the textiles. Particularly, the women’s clothing.

I have always held the belief that much can be discerned about the social and cultural history of a time period by a close examination of the time period’s fashion. In the boxes of this basement, there lies a quick snapshot of history through its frills (literally – badum tish!).

The first garment that really seized my attention was this gilded age petticoat, an article that once belonged to Caroline Wiesenfeld Rosenfield.

The extravagance and ideological crossfires of this era are evident in the fashion choices made by its women; it was after all, a time of stifling Victorian sensibilities, a fin-de-siècle sense of lawlessness, and the rise of a new industrial working class –all doused in shimmering gilt. This petticoat was more than likely one of the last of its kind. Petticoats of such a fashion (bell-shaped) were falling out of fashion by the late nineteenth century, in favor of more bustled and ruffled styles. A new image of more voluptuous and highly pronounced femininity strangely arose out of the repressed sexuality of the Victorian era, arguably setting the ultimate momentum for the suffrage movement that shortly followed. This petticoat is a small snapshot of an ideological movement in American history, one that championed tradition on the dawn of a changing social landscape.

And here is an example of the height of this new liberal and prosperous landscape – a flapper dress from the roaring 20’s. We all know (especially those of us that attended the JMM’s Purim party this past spring!) about the free spirit of flappers. “Looser” morals are personified here in the looser bodice, the shorter hemlines, and the freer usage of color. Women were gaining independence, in most every realm, and the lively spirit of dress, as seen in this beautiful JMM gown, embodied this.

And here, this 1940s portrait of Miriam Epstein Lansburgh is exemplary of my favorite style of dress – American war era. The simple elegance shows the ideological move back towards “traditional” American values and the desire to embody radiant sophistication. The war brought a revived surge of patriotism, bolstering the morale lost in the Great Depression. Women were again able to dabble in the frivolous realm of fashion – and convey the patriotic spirit of American traditionalism while doing so. Visions of white picket fences and nuclear families seized the nation, and elegant femininity and grace seized females. As a woman who always hopes to emulate Grace Kelly (if only palely), I find the dress and demeanor of this photograph stunning.

In short, among the wonderland of boxes, Saks Fifth Avenue has nothing on the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s basement.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

D. Schwartz and Sons in process

Posted on February 7th, 2011 by

When I first thought about this blog post I considered writing about my experiences working from home (which has happened several times recently thanks to snow and ice).  But then I started processing the D. Schwartz and Sons collection and everything changed.  Why?  Because nearly every single staff member that passed by my table stopped to look at what I was doing and ask questions.  That interest inspired me to shift my original focus.

The D. Schwartz and Sons collection was received by the museum in 1997 and a JMM volunteer laboriously re-foldered and labeled over three hundred files, then partly organized the files.  But a finding aid had never been written.  A couple of weeks ago I pulled the collection with the intention of writing that finding aid.  When I started looking through the boxes (hoping to learn more about the company) I also discovered that the collection needed a bit more processing before I could begin any writing.

The collection consists of ledgers and business files and a rather extensive group of order books.  It was the order books that had the staff pausing on their way through the library.  The books had been separated by year and placed into two boxes, but they hadn’t been completely organized.  I knew which two dozen were from 1953, but when I started pulling them out of the box I found November 1953 next to April 1953 followed by October….you get the idea.  My first step was to get them in chronological order with clearly labeled folders.

This was the half organized scene that seemed to attract the attention of everyone who entered the library.

One half of the newly organized and carefully labeled order books. After all of my work the books took up four boxes instead of two!

After I finished with the order books I moved onto a group of books labeled ‘price lists.’  These Price Lists are catalogs for sewing machine parts, and they’re pretty amazing.  The oldest one dates to 1900, and most are for Singer machines.  I’m fascinated by both fashion history and the history of technology so these catalogs gave me a little thrill.  When the collection was first organized (sometime after 1997) multiple catalogues were placed in the same folder.  I thought that it was important to give each book its own folder so that I could include more details – not only the date and manufacturer, but also the models covered by each catalog.



And now I’m going through the largest part of the collection the 300 or so business files – mostly containing records of D. Schwartz and Sons dealings with other companies.

Business files

I’ve had to do a little reorganizing, but the biggest complication I encountered is the need to remove the dreaded metal fasteners.  The paperclips and staples (hundreds upon hundreds of staples!) will be removed over the next few weeks as I read through the files to learn enough about the company (so that I can write a proper finding aid).

In archives we do not use those sabertooth-like staple removers. In order to do as little damage as possible we use little spatulas to pry the staple open before removing it.

I’ve encountered one surprise so far – a fabric swatch.  I will be removing it from the folder so that we can store it in the best conditions for fabric, and leave a Permanent Separation Sheet in its place.  The separation sheet has a description of the item and its location so that a researcher can request to see it. I’ll repeat the process if I come across any more swatches or any photographs.

Fabric Swatch

Separation Sheet

I’m going to be working with the D. Schwartz and Sons collection for the next few weeks (with the help of one of my spring interns), but before too long I should have a new finding aid, ready to post right here!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland