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Saving Loudoun's History: Pandemics & Paper Preservation (Part 1)

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

“Social distancing” is a modern term for a historically utilized response to disease. You may be surprised to learn that isolation and quarantine strategies have been used for centuries to mitigate the spread of countless diseases ranging from plague to smallpox.

In the early 1900s, outbreaks of smallpox were occurring all over the United States, and many local governments enforced isolation and inoculation in an attempt to contain the virus. The fascinating social impact of these policies, as well as individual experiences and fears can be analyzed and understood further through historic documents.

Within a series of letters from the Loudoun Museum collection are pieces of the story of Laura Stanton from Ashburn, Virginia. Amidst an outbreak of smallpox in the early 20th Century, Laura was potentially exposed and put into isolation at the infirmary at Vassar College in New York, where she was a student in 1901. The nearly daily correspondence with her mother back home in Ashburn includes moments of relief, frustration, confusion, but ultimately continued hope. The personal nature of these letters makes this historic narrative not only relevant, but relatable.

Next week’s blog will include more detail of Laura’s story along with some transcription of her letters.

Preserving historic narratives about response to outbreaks of disease can provide significant resources to teach us about what happened in the past and can inform our responses today and in the future. For museums, this requires careful physical preservation of documentary artifacts and the information they hold. For individuals, the same principles and methods can be used to preserve personal collections of family papers, comic books, newspapers, and other ephemera.

Paper is delicate- both physically and chemically. The best way to ensure longevity of paper objects, or any museum object, is through preventive conservation measures that intend to avoid or reduce potential for damage to the collection, in handling, display, and storage.

Handling: Handling is one of the primary causes of deterioration for paper objects not only because they are physically delicate but because they require more and repeated handling in order to retrieve the information they contain. Digitally scanning and/or manually transcribing documents is a great way to increase accessibility and visibility of documents while decreasing handling and potential for damage.

The Basics:

1. No food or drinks around objects: Can stain/damage paper and attract pests.

2. Clean and dry hands: Gloves are not always recommended as they can make paper difficult to hold.

3. Pencil only: If taking notes, avoid ink which can leak and stain.

Storage/Display: The storage environment of any object is critical to its long-term preservation. The environment refers to the individual folder and box that objects are stored in as well as the overall climate of the room/building.

The Basics:

1. Archival quality folders, boxes, etc.: The materials used to store objects should be archival- meaning they will not contribute to deterioration during long-term storage. This is not a strictly or universally defined term but generally includes things like acid and lignin-free papers, chemically inert plastics, UV-filtered glass, and strong and durable boxes designed to reduce handling.

2. Stable storage climate: Humidity, temperature, and light are all potentially very damaging to paper collections.

a. Humidity: No surprise, water is bad for paper- that includes the water vapor in the air. High levels of humidity (above 70%) can cause distortion and discoloration and can encourage mold and pests. Aim for around 40-50% relative humidity.

b. Heat: Hotter climates accelerate chemical reactions and break down cellulose in paper. Aim for 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler.

c. Light: Light, especially ultraviolet (UV) light, causes oxidation of cellulose in paper and causes it to fade and weaken over time. The damage done by light is cumulative and irreversible. Store papers in dark environments and display them out of direct sunlight, with UV filtered glass, for limited time periods.

Preparing for storage:

1. Remove extraneous materials: rubber bands, paper clips, sticky notes, etc. can all contribute to deterioration.

a. Relevant materials should be kept but separated. (See photo below)

2. Unfold and flatten the document if possible: documents are weakest at creases and repeated unfolding can cause tears. If it is not possible to unfold or unroll safely, do not force it and consider consulting a conservator.

3. Clean gently with a soft brush to remove surface dirt and dust.

4. Use archival plastic sleeves to stabilize torn/brittle paper.

5. Put archival paper between documents stored together.

a. Store similar size/weight papers together- uneven pressure can cause damage.

Newsprint is highly acidic and will stain other paper it is in contact with. Always separate newspaper in storage (or make photocopies on archival paper).

If you’re looking for a project during these socially distant times- consider giving that dusty box of papers in the attic some attention. Small changes now- simply getting them out of the hot, humid, attic- will extend their life significantly. You might even find a story about your relatives like that of Laura Stanton to keep you entertained!


Price, Lois Olcott. “Books, Manuscripts, and Ephemera.” In The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection, 31–44. Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc., 2009.

Tognotti, Eugenia. “Lessons from the History of Quarantine, from Plague to Influenza A.” Emerging Infectious Diseases 19, no. 2 (February 2013): 254–59.

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