Make-do repairs helped preserve the history of vaudeville
Collection items that have been selected for exhibition frequently come to the paper lab for repair and stabilization before they are prepared for exhibition. Recently, conservators Kimberley Kwan (above) and Jane Boyd repaired several late nineteenth-century lithographic posters for inclusion in the exhibition Vaudeville!
On several of the items we noticed old patches made of poor-quality paper scraps from newspapers, gummed paper tape, and fragments of other prints on the backs of these posters. We often see these sorts of “provisional repairs”—made by previous owners, collectors, and dealers. The decision we have to make in the paper lab is whether to remove this material from the posters before we make our own repairs with high-quality Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.
The nature of the old repairs is interesting. We can surmise that many were made to extend the usable life of the posters. These advertisements for complete shows and particular vaudeville acts were carried by the traveling companies as they moved from one performance venue to the next. Typically, performers were required to provide their own publicity materials and advertising. Many of the posters were quite elaborate large-format four-color lithographic posters that would have been expensive to print. After rough handling, these valuable publicity items were repaired multiple times to extend their usable life.
Several of the posters in the collection exhibit repairs with strips of newspaper clippings—some in French, which suggests that, as the troupe traveled internationally, any readily available scrap paper was used for repairs.
One particularly interesting example for the show production Ship Ahoy! has extensive newspaper clipping provisional repairs on the back. Some of the repairs are from a New York newspaper and others, that have birth and death announcements for the city of Rouen, France, appear to be taken from a copy of a newspaper from that city. It would be interesting to try to track the cities where Ship Ahoy! played and see if at some point the show passed through Rouen. This might give a date to the repairs themselves.
After conferring with Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theatre and Performing Arts, who is the exhibition’s curator, we decided to leave the provisional repairs in place unless they posed an imminent danger to the physical stability of the collection item.
In a very real sense, the provisional repairs document the history of these ephemeral prints and the way they were used and re-used through time.