Tinsel prints, usually depicting actors in costume, are uniquely nineteenth-century artforms that were most popular from about 1815 to 1830. Tinseling enthusiasts bought plain or colored prints, then added costumes made of die-cut metal foils (tinsel) as well as bits of fabric, leather, feathers, and any other suitable material. The recent donation of the Peggy Cass and Carl Fisher Collection of Tinsel Prints has greatly expanded the Folger’s holdings in this genre, placing it among the world’s major collections of this type.
Although scholars of theatrical, art, and social history have much to learn from tinsel prints, the works pose extraordinary conservation challenges. Tinsel prints are a very delicate medium, inherently fragile and made of diverse materials. Early mounting and framing methods often add other stresses. Wood frames may be nailed into the prints themselves, and newspapers or other poor-quality materials were sometimes stuffed behind a print. Both the frames and the inserted materials are often acidic, causing staining in the prints. Moreover, since the prints are water-sensitive, acqueous (water-based) conservation methods cannot be used.
As a first step in caring for these special works, Folger conservator Rhea Baier has removed the frames—most of them made in the 1940s, but some the original bird’s-eye maple frames made in the early nineteenth century. She has also assessed and photographed each print. The next step, now underway, is to research tinsel prints in the professional conservation literature and through consultation with colleagues around the world; British researchers, for example, have analyzed the composition of materials favored by tinselers. To date, however, Folger conservators have not located any previous project that actively conserved tinsel prints. The Folger’s work on the prints, which will be conducted only after extensive research, may be a first in the field.