The Arthur Eugene Michel Collection of Government Stamped Postal Stationery
By Scott W. Devine, Museum Conservator
The Arthur Eugene Michel Collection of Government Stamped Postal Stationery consists exclusively of worldwide postal stationery issued between 1845 and 1940. This outstanding collection of government issued postal stationery was compiled by Arthur Eugene Michel and donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1940. The collection fills 143 albums arranged by country and totals over forty thousand objects. At the time of its donation, the collection was ninety-seven percent complete, evidence of the monumental collecting effort that went in to acquiring these objects.
This post provides background on the history of the collection and discusses recent steps taken to survey the collection and stabilize the leather albums that house the postal stationery.
Arthur Eugene Michel was born in St. Louis in 1880. He studied mechanical engineering at Rose Polytechnic Institute in Indiana and, in 1909, established a business specializing in industrial advertising which he headed for the rest of his life. Michel was widely known in the stamp world as the author of Roving the Stamp World, which focuses on his collection of international government issued postal stationery.1 In addition, Michel was a contributor to philatelic magazines and a radio speaker for the National Federation of Stamp Clubs.
As a collector, Michel realized that stamp designs printed on postal stationery are often significantly different from those appearing on individual postage stamps and that a complete record of stamp design must include postal stationery.
The Michel Collection offers exceptional opportunities for study of cancellations, postal routings, paper textures, watermarks, and handwriting during the past one hundred and fifty years. Some of its rarities were formerly in the collection of the late Count Ferrary.
The first step in assessing and repairing the collection was designing a condition survey. The survey process, which included a page-by-page review of each album, sought to answer the following questions related to the postal stationery, the corner mounts, the album pages, and the album structure:
- Is the postal stationery in stable condition?
- Is the paper brittle or acidic or likely to deteriorate further if left untreated?
- Is the paper torn or damaged and if so, what level of treatment will be necessary to repair it?
- Is there evidence of color offset, bleeding, or previous environmental damage?
- Are the corner mounts which hold the stationery to the album pages securely attached?
- Are they providing enough support for the stationery?
- Is the stationery likely to become detached and damaged through normal use?
- What is the condition of the seemingly fragile blue paper that makes up the album pages?
- Is it durable enough to adequately support the stationery?
- If it has been torn, how can it be repaired and with what materials?
- Is the current album format the best option for housing the collection?
- Does the album open easily for future digitization, research, and exhibition?
- Can the badly deteriorated leather covers be stabilized?
Reviewing each album page provided the time to answer these questions and develop a conservation treatment methodology that could be applied efficiently across all 143 albums.
The condition survey revealed that the collection is in remarkably good condition despite the badly deteriorated album covers:
- The postal stationery is in stable condition and required no repairs. The paper, although acidic, is not brittle and there was no evidence of ink offset or previous environmental damage.
- The corner mounts were in overall good condition. A few mounts had become loose or detached and were reattached with methyl cellulose. Although the corner mounts are made of thin paper, their larger size helps ensure that they hold the sometimes heavy letter cards securely in place.
- The album pages appear fragile and are quite thin, but they are in good condition, with only minor discoloration along the edges. Only a few pages were torn, and these were repaired with lightweight Japanese paper and methyl cellulose.
- The albums have the advantage of opening well and allowing the pages to be easily removed if needed for flatbed scanning, making for an easy workflow if the collection is digitized in future. The delaminating sheepskin covers were obviously the biggest preservation concern. Of the 143 albums, 36 were identified as needing repair.
To improve long term preservation of the collection, it was decided to repair the most damaged album covers and implement strategies for providing better support for the albums on the shelves, including the use of heavy-duty bookends which would provide better support for the volumes.
The primary goal of conservation treatment was to stabilize the album covers, which involved a three-step process:
- cleaning the covers with a soft cosmetic sponge to remove surface dirt;
- consolidating the fragile leather with a Klucel G, a commonly used leather consolidant, prepared in a 1% solution with isopropyl alcohol; and
- reattaching the delaminating leather with Zen Shofu wheat starch paste.
Consolidating the leather is a particularly important step to make sure the leather is stable and strong enough to support the adhesive. Testing is required to verify that the concentration of the consolidant is strong enough to stabilize the leather but does not discolor or further stiffen the leather to a point that it is no longer flexible. Multiple applications of a more dilute solution are preferable to using a more concentrated solution.
Aside from the covers, the album structures are in good condition overall. The metal posts and clamps holding the pages in place are slightly oxidized but function well to hold the pages in place. One album was completely disassembled and had to be reconstructed, but in most cases the album pages were securely attached and required no treatment.
One of the major issues in designing a treatment for such a large collection is making sure that the repaired objects integrate well with the other objects in the collection. For example, when repairing the damaged cover edges, a common additional step would be to cover the damaged corner with Japanese paper toned to match the cover, adding an additional layer of protection and making the repaired area less distracting. In this case, performing such a high level of treatment on one quarter of the collection would make the repaired volumes stand out even more, creating a visual distraction. For this reason, it was decided to limit treatment to stabilizing the covers rather than attempting a full aesthetic reintegration. As a result, the repaired albums can be handled safely but do not stand out from other volumes on the shelf or when placed together for exhibition.
One major aesthetic aspect of the treatment was creating new labels for albums with missing labels. To help the new labels blend in, Japanese paper was toned with artist grade acrylic paints and printed with laser printed labels which replicate the original missing label.
Many of the lessons learned from surveying and repairing the Arthur Eugene Michel Collection of Government Stamped Postal Stationery can be applied to personal collections:
- Regular survey and assessment of a collection is essential to its long term preservation.
- Checking the condition of paper objects such as stamps and stationery – and the condition of object mounts such as corner mounts -- affords the opportunity to make minor repairs before more serious damage occurs.
- Collection housing, including albums and boxes, should be evaluated periodically. In some cases, it may be advisable to transfer objects to new housings if the original housings cannot be repaired.
- One of the major keys to preserving any collection is storage in a climate controlled environment. For personal collections, this translates to keeping materials in a stable environment of approximately 70°F and 50% RH, typically in the main part of your home, avoiding basements and attics.
An ongoing program of collection survey and repair projects at the National Postal Museum ensures that collections like the Arthur Eugene Michel Collection of Government Stamped Postal Stationery will be available for research and digitization projects for many years to come.
1 Michel, A[rthur] Eugene. Roving the Stamp World. Douglaston, NY: A. Eugene Michel, 1933.
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).