Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow: The Rural Free Delivery Segregated Saddlebag
By Scott W. Devine, Museum Conservator
The New-York Historical Society recently curated Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, an exhibition which explores issues of racial inequality and the struggle for citizenship during the fifty years after the Civil War. The exhibition included a segregated saddlebag from the National Postal Museum collection. The saddlebag was used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to separate mail based on the race of the recipient and provides a sobering reminder of the pervasive nature of segregation during this period. The exhibition has since received funding to travel to several museums across the United States. This post will explore the history and significance of the saddlebag, the efforts to conserve the saddlebag for the original exhibition and the traveling exhibition and provide an update on the status of the traveling exhibition.
The Rural Free Delivery Segregated Saddlebag (1990.0149.1), thought to be in use from 1896 until 1921, was used to segregate mail collected from residents in Fluvanna County, Virginia. The item was most likely used by Frank W. Shepherd, letter carrier on Rural Route No. 1 in Palmyra, Virginia and was subsequently connected with his relatives at Boyd Tavern in Albemarle County, Virginia. The bag originated from a large estate sale of the contents of Boyd Tavern.
The large piece of leather connecting the two bags is hourglass shaped, composed of two lengths of stitched leather with a tooled design on the center top portion. The identical bags are three-toned leather (natural and black with red trim). Each has a handle sewn at the top and a three-part strap and buckle. The flap and interior of each bag is lined in undyed cotton.
When not on exhibit, the saddlebag is stored in a cabinet with Volara® polyethylene foam supports which help the object keep its shape. During exhibition, it rests on a specially constructed mount designed to support the weight of the side bags without stressing the fragile leather connecting the two bags. In between exhibits and during transit, the saddlebag is housed in a custom constructed crate lined with Ethafoam™, a rigid polyethylene foam that protects the object during transit. Proper storage and support for the object is essential for its long-term preservation.
Conservation treatment of the saddlebag was accomplished in two phases: initial stabilization in August 2018 for the original exhibition and more extensive work carried out in March 2019 to prepare the object for the traveling exhibition. This “phased approach” to conservation treatment is a common practice in the field of conservation and involves limited intervention, doing only what is needed to stabilize an object based on current needs and condition.
The saddlebag is in overall fair condition and shows signs of regular use over a period of decades. Prior to conservation treatment, it appears never to have been repaired. All the components, including buckles and straps, appear to be original. The major conservation priority for the original exhibition was the stabilization of a leather strap on the right side pocket: one strap was completely missing and the other was loose and in danger of separating.
Due to the thickness of the leather and its lack of flexibility, the strap could not be secured directly to saddlebag. Options such as mechanical attachment (e.g., sewing) or excessive application of adhesive were rejected as being too invasive. Instead, the loose strap was secured on the front of the saddlebag with two small Japanese paper hinges and a small amount of synthetic polymer adhesive. The Japanese paper hinges were toned with acrylics and attached under the strap using strips of polyester web that were removed once the repair was dry. The paper hinges are flexible and allow the leather strap to move slightly as needed without stressing the attachment.
During the initial examination of the object, it was noted that extensive cracking of embrittled leather was an issue, particularly the brown leather that connects the side bags. Areas of cracking at the top of central strap were tested with a range of adhesives to determine the best method for consolidation and re-adhesion of flaking leather: an appropriate adhesive that secured the leather without discoloration was identified, but it was determined that the object did not require this level of stabilization at this time and that travel to New York for the exhibition would not result in additional damage.
As the original exhibition came to an end, we received notification that funding had been secured for developing a traveling exhibition that would include the saddlebag. The traveling exhibition was planned for four venues in the United States. Due to the additional handling involved in packing and unpacking and mounting the object at each venue, it was decided that the cracking and delaminating leather should be repaired. Rather than returning the object to NPM for treatment, N-YHS staff offered to provide space for me to perform the additional treatments in New York.
In March 2019, I worked with N-YHS staff to deinstall the object and set up a temporary work area. The repairs, which focused on stabilizing the areas of flaking leather identified prior to the original exhibit, took approximately three days, during which time I was able to:
- Reattach loose leather under the central strap.
- Stabilize the edges of the central strap and re-adhere loose pieces of red leather around the saddlebag edges.
- Reattach loose threads from the edge stitching.
- Perform minor surface cleaning of the two side bags.
- Mend a larger tear (2cm) on left edge of the central strap and a smaller tear (1 cm) on the bottom right edge of the central strap.
- Reattach flaking leather on the outside of the central strap as outlined in the testing discussed previously. (This was the most time-consuming portion of the treatment.)
Once the repairs were completed, the object was crated and stored at N-YHS with the other objects in the traveling exhibit.
As a final step, minimal surface cleaning was performed on the side bags in order to remove surface accretions which might flake off and cause the surface of the leather to delaminate. Otherwise, surface cleaning was kept to a minimum in order to preserve the well-used appearance of the object. Minimal surface cleaning of the red leather trim at the edges revealed a bright vermillion color which gives the viewer a sense of how the object originally appeared.
Treatment of the segregated saddle bag provides a good example of a phased conservation treatment that seeks to preserve as much historic evidence as possible while stabilizing an object for travel and exhibition.
The saddlebag is currently at the Atlanta History Center, which is closed due to COVID-19. Exhibit dates may be extended after the museum reopens. The saddlebag is scheduled to be exhibited at the Bullock Texas State History Museum from July 10, 2021 to November 28, 2021. Please check the traveling exhibit website for up-to-date information about venues and exhibition dates.
About the Author
Scott W. Devine is a rare book and paper conservator and preservation administrator with over 20 years of experience in the field of conservation. He holds a Masters of Information Science with an Advanced Certificate in Conservation Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and received additional training in rare book conservation at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and at the Centro del bel libro in Ascona, Switzerland. Scott has established preservation programs at major academic research libraries in the United States and advised on conservation projects at libraries and museums throughout Europe. He is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).