Conservation of a Rural Free Delivery Wagon Model


By Scott W. Devine, Museum Conservator

The National Postal Museum has a large and varied collection of train and wagon models documenting the history of mail transport. The National Constitution Center (NCC) in Philadelphia recently requested to borrow a rural free delivery wagon model for a future exhibition. This blog post explores the treatment needed in order to prepare the wagon model for exhibition and discusses the complex logistics involved in preparing a large and rather complex object for transport.

Object Description
The wagon model was constructed by Winfield S. Ferree at the Terre Haute Wagon and Buggy Company in 1894 as an option for rural mail delivery. The design was approved by the Post Office Department and went into full-scale production in 1895.

Color photograph of a black wagon model with light brown wooden wheels. The wagon has an open front driver carriage with a benchlike seat and a large storage compartment in the back, resembling a trunk. The model is set on top of a wood table within a museum conservation lab.
The Rural Free Delivery Wagon Model (0.052985.277.1) was a prominent feature in the conservation lab for several weeks. It measures 81.28 cm (32 inches) high, 60.96 cm (24 inches) wide and 93.98 cm (37 inches) long.  The larger back wheels are 39.4cm (15.5 inches) in diameter and the smaller front wheels are 35.6cm (14 inches) in diameter.

The Terre Haute Wagon and Buggy Company was among the first to manufacture rural mail wagons. Its president, A. M. Higgins, inspected several rural postal routes under all weather conditions before drawing up the specifications for the company's RFD vehicles. The Terre Haute wagons were the most expensive on the market and were renowned for their durability.

Each RFD vehicle functioned as a miniature post office on wheels, with carriers able to receive and postmark mail and sell stamps, money orders, and other postal supplies. Our model represents a two-person wagon which allowed one carrier to drive the wagon while the other processed mail along the way. The wagons were used on an experimental basis in large counties, beginning at Westminster, Maryland, in 1899 and continuing to Carroll County, Maryland; Frederick County, Maryland; Washington County, Pennsylvania; Jackson County, Missouri; and Newton County, Georgia. The wagons did not prove as efficient as first thought due to having two carriers working the same route at the same time and were discontinued by 1905. 

Conservation Treatment
In order to prepare the wagon model for exhibition, it was moved from storage to the conservation lab for a condition survey. During the survey, it was noted that the object is stable but with general wear and tear to paint surfaces and with small losses at functional points, especially on the wheels, shafts, and the undercarriage of the wagon body.  Significant areas of paint loss were noted on the wagon tongue, the part that connects the wagon to the horse’s harness. The flaking yellow paint on the tongue would need to be stabilized and reattached if possible.

It was also noted that the black paint on the wagon body has a white haze and an uneven appearance. The white haze may be caused by components of the black paint which are beginning to degrade or by the migration of compounds from the original primer coat. Based on the previous condition survey, the discoloration appears stable and has not increased during the time the object was in climate-controlled storage at the museum. However, the potential instability of the paint layer indicates that temperature and relative humidity will need to be tightly controlled throughout the exhibition in order to avoid accelerating the rate of chemical reactions responsible for the discoloration. 

Close up color photograph of the side of a black model wagon. The black paint and red, yellow, and blue lettering is covered by a subtle white haze.
The white haze on the paint surface appears stable and has not changed since the previous condition report. Maintaining a stable exhibition environment with low light levels and little fluctuation in temperature and relative humidity will help ensure that the object can be exhibited safely.

Following the condition report, a treatment proposal was submitted to the curator for approval, and the following treatment steps were completed:

  1. Cleaned surfaces overall, inside and out, with a soft brush to remove dust.
  2. Reattached loose threads in cushion seat by working them back into cushion with a small needle.
  3. Removed seat cushion and sewed loose button back in to place with 35/3 linen sewing thread: thread goes through cushion and wraps around button support on underside of cushion.
  4. Consolidated flaking paint on tongue with a 1% solution of Aquazol 50:500 in ethanol and constructed a temporary enclosure to store tongue while wagon model is on exhibit: tongue will not travel with wagon model as its length will not allow it to be displayed in the exhibit case.
  5. Constructed new foam supports (with removal instructions) for front wagon mechanism.

Detailed before and after treatment images were taken. The treatment images will allow museum staff to monitor the condition of the flaking and discolored paint and will provide a reference point for checking the condition of the object as it travels to and from the exhibition. 

Care and Handling
The RFD Wagon Model is housed in a custom storage and shipping crate which allows the model to be safely moved when needed. The model is heavier than it appears and is particularly top heavy when being lifted out of the crate.  A sliding tray built into the crate allows for easier removal and lifting without having to touch the object.

Color photograph of a black model wagon with large, light brown, wooden wheels packed into a large wooden crate. The final side of the crate has not been closed, so the wagon is fully visible within the crate. The crate stands on the floor of a museum conservation lab.
Strategically placed internal supports ensure that the wagon will not shift during transit. The crate is lined with a waterproof material which also insulates the object from shifts in temperature and relative humidity during transit.

Minor modifications were needed in order to prepare the wagon for shipment, including the construction of supports to stabilize the more fragile components from vibration during transit. Ethafoam™ was used to provide rigid support and was lined with softer Volara® foam at points where it meets the object, minimizing abrasion and protecting the fragile paint surface.

Close up photograph of the light brown, wooden, front hitch of the wagon model. Affixed to the hitch are two pieces of white foam supports; one is fastened with a white ribbon. There are printed instructions attached to the foam, explaining how to remove the foam in three steps without damaging the wooden hitch.
Ethafoam ™ and Volara ® foam supports were constructed to protect the most fragile portions of the wagon. Step-by-step removal instructions are necessary to ensure the supports do not damage the object when they are being removed.

Due to the potential difficulty in handling the object, it was decided that a member of the museum staff would be needed to oversee the unpacking and installation of the object when it arrived at the exhibition venue. To facilitate unpacking, a detailed set of instructions -- seven pages with images -- was created to assist museum staff working with the object. The written instructions illustrate the specific steps and handling procedures that are necessary to safely remove the object from the crate and include a list of supplies such as nitrile gloves that are necessary for object handling. 

Two color photographs similar in composition. On the left, a female museum specialist carefully holds a black wagon model from beneath the front hitch. She is wearing purple latex gloves on both hands. On right, a closer up photograph of a female museum specialist carefully holds a black wagon model from beneath the front hitch. She is wearing purple latex gloves on both hands.
By illustrating exactly where and how to support the wagon during handling, we reduce the risk of damaging the more fragile paint surfaces or putting too much pressure on the weaker parts of the structure.

Safely handling the RFD Wagon Model is a team project: up to six museum staff members are needed to lift and remove the object from the crate and install it for exhibition.

The RFD Wagon Model is a good case study in preventive care. The conservation treatment required to stabilize the object was relatively straightforward and followed standard protocols. The more significant preservation steps involved engineering out potential damage during the exhibition: constructing a safe storage and travel crate with adequate internal supports for the object, working with the borrowing institution to ensure a stable temperature and relative humidity to prevent further deterioration of the painted surfaces, and developing a detailed set of instructions to aid museum staff in safely handling this unique object.

To learn more about the origin and evolution of Rural Free Delivery, explore our virtual exhibitionBringing the World Home.”


Scott Devine

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).