The Charters of Freedom - A New World is at Hand  
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by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Catherine Nicholson
Prologue, Fall 2003

Historic Murals in the Charters of Freedom Rotunda

Examining the Documents

As a document was freed from its encasement, it became available for close examination, measuring, and photography without the barrier of intervening layers of glass. While some records exist on the creation, history, travels, and exhibition of the documents over the years—including a few nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs—the information is relatively sparse. But the documents themselves offered a wealth of clues and insights into the ways they were created and handled. Patterns of creases and folds on the documents pointed to how they had been folded or stored.

The Bill of Rights still had pronounced horizontal and vertical creases from having been folded, though it had been stored flat for almost a century.

The Declaration had both fold lines and parallel horizontal creases that were evidence of rolling. It also had a noticeable band along all edges that was flat and very clean. Records indicate that early in the twentieth century the Declaration had been glued along the four edges to a support.

The Constitution did not show evidence of folding but had adhesive in broad strokes on the backs of the parchments, suggesting that the leaves had been glued overall to a backing.

Each document was available for direct examination for a short time before re-encasement, but this time was sufficient to apply modern examination techniques and tools to evaluate and record the document's condition and develop and carry out appropriate conservation treatment. The full dimensions of each parchment were measured as well as its average thickness, which varied somewhat along the edges and from top to bottom. The color of the parchment was measured. Many photographs were made of the condition of the parchment before any treatment was proposed or undertaken.

How the Charters Were Made

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were handwritten by a clerk or scribe on parchment, an animal skin specially treated with lime and stretched to create a strong, long-lasting writing support.

The clerk's job was a demanding one. He was trained to create a fine handwritten text. In his work, he wrote a very regular and legible cursive script, with titles and important phrases engrossed, that is, made larger and darker with additional strokes of ink. His tools included a pen knife and quill pens cut from large feathers. He wrote with ink made from oak galls and iron, with gum arabic as binder, and often with a colorant such as logwood added to enhance the initially pale ink. Following English practice, he wrote important legal documents and contracts on parchment. Parchment was expensive, generally imported from Great Britain, but its life expectancy was very long.

  

A conservator works on the Constitution.
A conservator examines the ink on Page One of the Constitution, letter by letter. In the treatment of this document, the most important step was to ensure that the original iron gall ink remained well adhered.
  Close-up of the Declaration before conservation treatment Close-up of the Declaration after conservation treatement  
  The image at left shows loss in the edge of the parchment near the word "America" on the Declaration of Independence. At right is the same area after conservation treatment. The loss was filled with a small piece of Japanese paper that was toned and burnished to resemble the parchment. With the loss filled, the edge of the Declaration is stable and visually intact.  

The clerk often had little time to take a corrected rough draft and write out a "fair" or "smooth" final legible copy before it was to be signed. He needed rule lines to guide his hand and ensure straight lines of text. Corrections were difficult to make because parchment was such a tough and unforgiving medium. He scraped out words or lines with his penknife or inserted words or phrases carefully into the text, sometimes including an errata paragraph to attest that the approved document was unaltered.

The clerk could never have imagined that two centuries later, conservators would peer through a binocular microscope to examine his pen strokes. Examining these documents, conservators found faint rule lines that were present on several, appearing as reddish brown lines on the Constitution and a gray medium on the Declaration. They saw several scraped erasures on the documents, visible as areas of roughened parchment often grayed with surface dirt, and occasionally, omitted words or phrases inserted into the text. On the last page of the Constitution, the scribe wrote a final errata paragraph noting his corrections to the text. Many random ink splotches or spatter, large and small, show evidence of the difficulty of writing with a quill pen.

Working closely with the documents, conservators also came to recognize the characteristic handwriting of the different scribes who wrote these three documents. They also saw unobtrusive marks or annotations on the documents, including small numbers, an "x" mark, and brackets in the margins, presumably to mark or emphasize a section of text. Who made these marks and when is not known. Most of these faint marks appear to be in a soft gray medium that resembles graphite.

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Making of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 1) Making of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 2) Making of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 3) Making of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 4) Making of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 5) Making of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 6) Making of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 7) Impact of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 8) Impact of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 9) Impact of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 10) Impact of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 11) Impact of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 12) Impact of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 13) Impact of the Charters (Exhibit Case Number 14) Declaration of Independence Constitution of the United States Bill of Rights
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