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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Conserving Our Political Paper Lanterns

September 19, 2014 Archive Insight
Campaign Lantern for Democrat George McClellan running against Republican Abraham Lincoln, 1864. (Object ID: 72.31.53)

The Henry Ford holds an extensive collection of late 19th century political campaign lanterns, dating from the 1860 to 1900.  These paper, accordion-folded lanterns usually held candles and were used in processions and rallies in support of the candidates. They are screen printed in patriotic colors - some contain images of the candidates and/or slogans.  In an age before television and radio, processions were a method of attracting attention for a political race.  As paper objects these are truly ephemeral objects.  Their survival for more than 100 years is remarkable.  

James Garfield, 1831-1881; and Chester Arthur, 1829-1886. Republican Party Candidates 1880 (Object ID: 69.145.12).


The condition of the lanterns

lanter2When the collapsed lanterns arrived in the conservation laboratory for examination their fragile condition was immediately evident. Because the lanterns were originally intended to be used only once they were constructed from inexpensive paper and cardboard with metal wire handles.

Inevitably the finely pleated folded construction of the lanterns in combination with the acidic paper materials and past exposure to harsh environments meant that the longevity of the lanterns was threatened.

lantern3Merely attempting to expand the lanterns caused them to crumble. A layer of fine dirt and various stains including fly specs (insect excrement) were visible on the surface of the lanterns. In addition tears and areas of detached or missing fragments presented a formidable task.

After evaluation and consultation with the curator, the decision was made to proceed with the conservation work on the fragile lanterns despite the risky and time consuming nature of the work. This collection of twelve paper lanterns is both very delicate and, consequently, rather rare.  If the paper lanterns could be stabilized at least long enough to enable us to take some high quality photographs; one could make them live on for the public digitally.  Even though the inexpensive materials had survived over a hundred years; another hundred did not seem likely.

Lantern before conservation treatment.

The conservation treatment of the lanterns included the following steps:

  • Surface dirt on the lanterns was diminished by the use of a small soft brush and with the aid of compressed air.
  • The lanterns were exposed to humidity in a controlled environment to prevent further cracking, tearing, and damage while the collapsed layers were carefully unfolded.
  • Once unfolded, the lanterns were propped up internally using a piece of thick rolled paper.

Accretions (such as the fly specks) were reduced or removed by careful scraping with spatula and scalpel whenever possible.

  • The lanterns were de-acidified by the application of magnesium oxide to control acidity and slow the degradation process. The solution of magnesium oxide combines with moisture in the air to form an alkaline buffer.
  • Mold stains were cleaned by the careful application of ethanol. The lantern paper was mended from the inside by the meticulous application of small patches of document mending tissue adhered with methyl cellulose adhesive.


  • Finally, the lanterns we placed in custom made, acid-free, lignin-free boxes. The boxes were modified to include Mylar (clear plastic) windows in front for visibility, and hinged at the bottom with cupped slide-out trays, for easy access. The lanterns are so delicate, that having them visible in storage will reduce handling and consequent damaged due to jostling.


voting, presidents, conservation, collections care

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