The Henry A. Meyer Collection of French Revolution and Napoleonic Covers
By Scott W. Devine, Museum Conservator
The Henry A. Meyer Collection consists of fourteen volumes (1979.0098; 1981.0819; 1983.0780; 1985.0026; 1986.0025) of covers and documents from the French Revolution and Napoleonic era and represents an invaluable resource in French postal history. Henry Albert Meyer (1894-1968) was considered one of the leading students and collectors of the postal histories of the French Revolution and Napoleonic eras. He wrote or co-wrote numerous scholarly works, including The Postal History of the Kingdom of Westphalia Under Napoleon, 1807-1814. Co-authored by Carroll Chase, this study was largely based on Meyer’s collection which was donated to the Smithsonian by Meyer’s niece, Dr. Margery W. Shaw, over a period of nine years beginning in 1978.
Organized as a series of story boards recounting the history of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era, the collection offers a spellbinding account of historical events alongside an astonishing collection of letters and covers that bring these events to life.
A recent condition survey and repair project highlighted the value of this extraordinary collection and its potential for continued scholarly research. This post provides background on the collection and its significance, summarizes work done to stabilize the collection, and discusses potential future projects related to digitization and research.
At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, French postal markings and place names had long been standardized. The National Convention, the assembly that governed France during the most critical period of the Revolution, met on September 20, 1792 to formally abolish the monarchy and declare the Republic of France. The National Convention lost no time in changing the existing royalist names of departments, districts, cantons, and communes. Specifically, the National Convention changed town names with regal and religious bearing, eliminating names that referenced the former monarchy in particular. The Meyer Collection documents these changes and includes postmarks showing the new revolutionary place names.
The collection also documents the Napoleonic era (1799-1815) and contains exceptional examples of correspondence sent from the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt. The letters from Egypt provide insights into the creation of postal routes and the establishment of French post offices in occupied Egypt.
The primary goal of the condition survey was to assess the condition of the letters and covers, including the quality and flexibility of the paper, the condition of the writing inks, and the attachment of these materials to the card stock supports. Of particular concern was whether the letters could be easily unfolded and flattened for future digitization.
The condition survey confirmed that the collection is in overall good condition, especially the paper on which the letters and covers are written. The paper in the collection is extraordinary. Produced before the introduction of mechanically pulped paper (c. 1790) and well before the introduction of acidic ground wood paper (c. 1825), most of the paper in the collection is made of high-quality cotton and linen fibers. Aside from a small number of minor tears, the letters and covers are in excellent condition; the wax seals are in good condition as well, with no observed treatment needs. The most significant preservation issue is the deterioration of iron gall ink, with some letters showing characteristic haloing of ink and, in rare cases, embrittlement in areas around text; continued storage in a stable environment will help reduce the rate of deterioration of these inks.
An obvious concern was the condition of the original storage boxes. The boxes were manufactured by Smith and Butterfield in Evansville, Indiana for use as file storage boxes. Composed of paper board and wood joined with adhesive and covered in thin leather and marbled paper, the boxes were never intended to support the weight of the story boards and covers.
Wear and tear at the edges of the boxes was also an issue, especially at joints where the acidic marbled paper had begun to crack and separate from the box structure.
Complicating the issue and contributing to further instability of the box structure, extra space in the margins of the boxes had been filled with newspapers from the mid-1950s. The acidic components of the newspaper created an unfavorable environment for the collection and needed to be removed.
When possible, we prefer to keep original housings, especially ones that have been labeled or modified by the collector. The original housings provide insight into how the collection was formed and organized and provide a record of how the collection was used by the collector. Creating new enclosures and retaining the original boxes would have doubled the storage requirement for the collection, so rather than taking up additional space, it was decided to retrofit the original boxes with custom-designed acid free inserts that would stabilize the boxes and provide a better environment for the covers and letters.
Extensive conservation treatment was required to stabilize the original storage boxes. Treatment included removing newspaper inserts, designing new interior supports, and reinforcing the boxes to address structural and aesthetic issues.
The treatment proposal summarizes the major actions taken to stabilize the collection:
- Repair original storage boxes with Japanese paper (Sekishu Tsuru toned with Golden Artist Acrylic Bone Black) and Zen Shofu wheat starch paste, reinforcing box edges as needed and reattaching delaminating paper.
- Remove and discard interior supports of crumpled newspaper and replace with custom inserts constructed with acid-free corrugated blue board.
- Survey box contents and confirm that all objects are present or accounted for (i.e., items removed for exhibition have been replaced with physical notes marking where the objects belong in the box).
- Review physical condition of each cover and complete repairs as needed.
- Reconcile paper inventory in collections file with contents of boxes and work with collection manager and curator to resolve discrepancies.
The original storage boxes were repaired by reattaching loose pieces of marbled paper and reinforcing fragile cloth joints. The cloth joints were repaired with thin pieces of long fibered Japanese paper toned with acrylics to match the original cloth. Once reinforced, the box hinges function remarkably well and the boxes are significantly more stable.
Once the boxes were repaired, it was possible to move on to designing and constructing the box inserts. The insert design utilizes acid-free boxboard fitted to the size and depth of each box. The new inserts lock into original clips inside the boxes, providing a stable attachment to the original box without the use of adhesive. The inserts can be easily removed or modified in future if needed, making this part of the treatment completely reversible if needed.
The new inserts make the boxes easier to handle and secure the story boards in such a way that there is little chance of them falling out when the box is opened. The relatively thin corrugated board used for the inserts fits easily into each box without having to adjust the contents or modify the original order of material.
An inventory was conducted in conjunction with the condition survey. As the objects were reviewed for condition, the location of each object in the box was verified, making sure that any objects previously removed for exhibition had been adequately accounted for with an “object removed” form. Inventorying the collection was made easier by using photocopies made when the collection was accessioned beginning in 1978.
The photocopies also made it possible to visually assess whether there had been any damage to the object since being accessioned. Fortunately, the collection is intact and in overall good condition, making it an excellent candidate for a future digitization project. The first step in a digitization project would be scanning each story board, upgrading the photocopies with high quality digital images. The second step in a digitization project might include unfolding and scanning individual letters based on research needs.
Aside from documenting a significant period in French postal history, the Meyer Collection offers a range of research possibilities related to material culture. In particular, the collection provides an interesting index to the type of paper that was being produced and used for postal stationery during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Meyer was particularly interesting in identifying papers based on watermarks. The best example of Meyer’s watermark research is a letter dated 1819 written on paper featuring the French Imperial Eagle watermark with a countermark bearing the profile of Napoleon.
Watermarks allow paper historians to identify the location and date of production for a given paper, leading to insights about local economies, trade, and the availability of raw materials during specific periods. A preliminary study of the watermarks indicates that the paper in the collection was produced primarily in France and Italy, although this is only a starting point. The collection provides many possibilities for in depth study of paper manufacture and the paper trade during the French Revolution and Napoleonic eras.
Condition surveys like the one conducted for the Meyer Collection are necessary both when a collection is acquired and throughout the lifecycle of a collection as it is used for research and exhibition. Condition surveys allow us to monitor a collection and undertake preventive actions as needed to ensure the collection remains in good condition and readily available for consultation by researchers and museum staff. Surveying the Meyer Collection led to preventive conservation actions which have made the collection easier to handle and minimized the possibility of future damage. The survey also revealed that the collection is in good condition and an excellent candidate for future digitization and research initiatives.
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).