“Are you nervous? This famous tonic helps to calm quivering nerves” reads the title of a 1936 advertising poster. It took steady hands and nerves to repair this collection of posters from the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company. “Men Love Peppy Girls, this famous tonic helps to give you pep and energy!” and “Be on the Job Every Day, Take Lydia E. Pinkham’s Tablets for Discomforts Peculiar to Women” are two additional titles from this wonderful collection recently conserved at Harvard Library’s Weissman Preservation Center.
The posters are lithographs ranging in size from 28” x 21” to 40” x 98” and printed on single or multiple sheets of paper. They had previously been stored rolled which, in addition to their condition, made them difficult to access. That’s where Weissman Preservation Center came in. Our purpose is to stabilize materials such as books, photographs, and paper-based items belonging to rare collections at any Harvard Library. Working closely with Schlesinger Library, we first completed a condition survey of the collection and a pilot project on three representative posters to inform our treatment protocol.
The posters ranged in condition from good to poor. All had surface grime, tears, and creases. Some of the tears were quite large, as can be seen in the before-treatment image of “Are You Nervous?” Yet another large poster was torn completely in half. Some of the rolled posters had been crushed, creating a repeating pattern of creases along the length. Many also had detached and/or missing fragments.
Many of the largest posters were fragile, making handling a challenge and requiring that staff first devise techniques that allowed one person to safely maneuver the posters. Even so, two staff members were still required to flip the posters over. Digital images had to be taken before repair work could begin. Surface grime was gently reduced using cosmetic sponges made of polyurethane foam, latex sponges, and vinyl erasers. Creases were reduced through localized applications of moisture using deionized water applied either by brush or by the controlled introduction of humidity. While the posters were still damp, blotters and weights were applied to further reduce the distortions. Mending the tears was an involved process. The sides of each tear were aligned from the front to ensure image continuity and then Japanese tissue reinforcement was adhered to the back. Detached fragments were put in place using this same method. Missing paper fragments were only repaired if needed for structural integrity, using Japanese paper toned with thin washes of acrylic paint to closely match the original paper tone. Once all repairs were completed, after-treatment digital images were taken. The final step was to provide safe storage for the materials. The small and medium posters fit into existing flat file drawers in archival folders. The large posters, however, required custom-made boxes designed so that the posters could be rolled onto a tube suspended above the box bottom.
As a result of this work, we are all less nervous about the long-term health of the advertising posters from the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company!