Monthly Archives: May 2014

Good Night and Sleep Tight: Re-Stringing a 19th-Century Bed

Many thanks to Lisa Withers, M.A. student at UNCG and Blandwood docent, for this guest post.

Artifacts in a house museum help visitors gain a better understanding of daily life for the individuals and families who once occupied the dwelling. One popular item is the rope bed found in many early American homes which helps visitor compare how Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries slept in contrast to the beds we use today.

Earlier this year, a group of museum professionals gathered at Governor Morehead’s Blandwood Mansion to re-string the rope bed located in the 1795 section of the home. Marian Inabinett and Corinne Midgett of the High Point Museum joined me and Elyse Bennett, also a UNCG museum studies student and Blandwood docent, to get the job done. While preparing, our group found a great tutorial video made by David Sextner and Jerome Bias at Hope Plantation, which helped us understand the process .

Blandwood BedTo get started, we removed the old rope from the bed frame. At the top of the bed, we pulled the length of the new rope through the length of the bed in a similar manner as pulling thread through the eye of a needle. At the head of the bed, we made a knot on the side of the frame facing the wall. We continued threading the rope in alternating directions the length of the bed.

BlandwoodBed2When the bed was re-strung lengthwise, we wrapped the rope around the corner of the bed frame to change directions and began re-stringing across the bed’s width. We interwove the rope going across the bed’s width with the rope along the length of the bedframe, alternating direction each time we went across the width of the bed. As we interweaved the rope, we gently pulled and tightened as we went along to keep the appropriate tension on the rope and frame. When we reached the end of the bed, we made another knot on the bedframe’s exterior. We then checked the tension of the rope to ensure it was tight enough to keep the bed frame in place and to provide extra stability. When we finished re-stringing the bed, we covered the ropes with an interwoven oak pallet, a tick pallet, a pillow, and a coverlet. From our experience, we found it was beneficial to have a four-person team with two individuals to hold frame stable and two to restring the bed. For a 6 ft. 3 in. by 4 ft. 3 in. bed, we used approximately 100 ft. of 3/8 inch twisted manila rope.

L to R: Elyse Bennett, Lisa Withers, Marian Inabinett, and Corinne Midgett

L to R: Elyse Bennett, Lisa Withers, Marian Inabinett, and Corinne Midgett

From the procedure of re-stringing a rope bed, it is easy to see how the origins of the phrase “sleep tight” became a popular myth. However, the phrase is rather modern, as the Oxford English Dictionary lists its first use in 1933. While there are a few earlier written accounts using the term, there is not sufficient evidence to suggest the phrase came from the practice of stringing a rope bed.

Photos courtesy Benjamin Briggs, Executive Director of Preservation Greensboro, Inc.


Leaving a Mark

In honor of May as Preservation Month, this post is about a preservation issue inside a building that is iconic for all of North Carolina as well as its capital city.  Since its completion in 1840 many visitors to the Old State Capitol Building in Raleigh have left their marks. The large hand-cut stone blocks bear the chisel indentations of various stone cutters; the worn stone steps attest to many footfalls and heavy loads dragged upwards; and wooden banisters in the house and senate chambers boast carvings of names/ initials and dates. Is it a sense of the structure’s significance that has compelled some of those passing through to carve their names into the wood? These marks of creation, use, and commemoration (however subversive) are visible to all who visit the Old Sate Capitol for one of its free tours.


stairway to storage

stairway to storage

Recently I took advantage of an opportunity for NC Department of Cultural Resources staff to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the building. We snuck peeks at staff offices, attic storage areas, and views near the rotunda. The marks individuals had left behind continued, and perhaps became even more pronounced, as we climbed and pressed our way into non-public areas. This wall (left) near a roof access door exhibits over a hundred years’ worth of visitors proclaiming “I was here!” Earlier marks from the 1900s or so have been carved into the wood, whereas modern graffiti artists chose markers to commemorate their visits.

fingerprintselectricianGraffitiAdditionally, several of the more hidden corridors bear the marks of hands which have accomplished the difficult and often dangerous work of building maintenance duties. These marks on the right are from electricians who have squeezed into tight spaces and balanced themselves on ledges to change light bulbs around the senate chamber rotunda.

When do preservationists view marks like fingerprints and graffiti as defacement in need of correction and when do we view them as interesting testaments to a building’s (or object’s) use and significance? This is a question object conservators must ask themselves before each treatment, and sometimes the answer is different. Cleaning is irreversible and permanently strips away evidence of human interaction with the material. The Old State Capital staff has taken two different approaches to this quandary. For some of the wooden railings bearing carved letters and numbers from visitors (dating from the building’s period of use, 1840-1963), the marks remain. For others, staff has in-filled the carvings and painted over the rails.

Which approach (or combination) has your site taken?

–Adrienne Berney, C2C Collections Care Trainer

Mulch and Pest Management

Thanks to Martha Battle Jackson, Chief Curator of N.C. Historic Sites, CREST member, and C2C instructor extraordinaire, for this guest post.

Spring has definitely sprung, and with it comes a variety of insects.  (I have just been bitten by a mosquito while sitting at my desk!)

Earlier this month I met with Dr. Mike Waldvogel and Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice (NCSU entomologists) to examine some of the buildings at Duke Homestead.  Site Manager Jennifer Farley thought one of the buildings had termite issues.  While Dr. Waldvogel poked around the buildings, Dr. Rice had a fun time knocking over logs and examining ants.  She found several varieties—rather gleefully, I might add.  In fact, she likes ants so much, she’s written a book that is free—for now.  It will be published soon, and then it won’t be available, so go ahead and download it for your files.  If you have an I-phone or Mac, it’s interactive; otherwise, it’s in a pdf. (For one of her briefer discussions of ants, click here.)

BTW: In the book link, there are some other rather intriguing projects listed on the right side, including “Belly Button Biodiversity” and “Armpit Life”.  Can’t say these folks don’t have a sense of humor!

Although ants aren’t typically “heritage eaters,” termites are and can damage collections along with the buildings that house them. Someone recently asked if it was okay to put mulch around a building.  I didn’t think so as I’ve heard it attracts termites, so I asked Dr. Waldvogel.  Here is his response:

Cedar mulch – years ago, I did a project with Eleanor’s major professor where we found that ants did not like to set up nests when the area was covered with cedar mulch.  However, as those volatile cedar-smelling chemicals are depleted, the ants will move into the area.   As for termites, [they] will inevitably get into any wood mulch and reduce it to organic waste.   The big thing is that I would not let it touch the building.  We recommend keep mulch 6-12″ away for several reasons (including mice).  In the bigger picture, you’re better off with gravel closest to the building, although that gets very expensive.

The good news for Duke Homestead was that Waldvogel did not find evidence of termites in the building. There were some in a log about 10 ft. away, and staff has since removed it.

If your NC institution has questionable pest activity, contact the NCSU entymology department, as Martha and Jennifer did. The experts there can identify pests and offer advice if you provide them with good images.

Historic Structures: Sustainability, Revenue, and Access

A build-it-and-they-will-come, once-around-and-done tour model is not sustainable for all but a very few historic sites. The Biltmore is probably the most successful example of this approach in NC, and at $44 – $59 a ticket, the historic site sustains itself. According to National Trust for Historic Preservation President, Stephanie Meeks, house museums in 2002 incurred an average cost of $40 per visitor, while receiving (on average) $8 per visitor in revenue. In this opinion piece, Meeks profiled Tryon Palace as a good example of “re-programming for mission-related use” with its new visitor center and in particular, the Pepsi Family Center.

Other analysts of the historic house dilemma, however, warn against building visitors’ centers. The large capital campaigns necessary for these projects often overreach the organization’s capacity for revenue generation and fail to bring about long-term increases in visitation. Tryon Palace itself, despite its creative and high-tech method to engage children with the past, has struggled to sustain itself in the wake of its new visitor center and the gradual withdrawal of state funding. Ticket prices have increased to $20/10 for a day pass and $12/6 for a limited ticket that allows families into the history center alone (not the Palace). Consequently, even though the new Pepsi Center may attract newer, younger audiences, its cost to visitors limits outreach potential.

In 2007 AASLH published Donna Harris’ book New Solutions for House Museums. That same year the Kykuit II Summit on the “Sustainability of Historic Sites” echoed Harris by urging struggling non-profit groups, in charge of house museums and other types of historic sites, to consider shutting down their “velvet rope tours” and returning their properties to private ownership. The selling process, which can include protective easements, can relieve the organizations’ burdens while committing new owners (often wealthy) to historic preservation. Such solutions may have the positive effect of shrinking the stock of barely functioning historic sites and promoting the integration of preservation more fully into business ventures, but perhaps an unintended consequence is limiting access to those who can and will pay large sums of money for preservation and historical experiences.

An interesting NC example of historic preservation combined with “impact investment” is the Frying Pan Tower, 34 miles off the coast near Southport. A decommissioned lighthouse, the tower is now an immersive historic experience, a unique bed and breakfast run by a Charlotte proprietor. However, costs are $498/ person / weekend (2 nights). This does not include transportation from shore points—either by boat ($333+ roundtrip) or helicopter ($950 roundtrip). Such costs exclude a huge portion of the attraction’s potential audience.

image credit: Joe Standaert, SVM Facebook Page

image credit: Joe Standaert, SVM Facebook Page

The Swannanoa Valley Museum also provides immersive experiences as a way to generate revenue for the institution, but it provides a loophole in participant costs to allow access to interested community members who would otherwise not be able to afford the activity. By coordinating extensive hikes (each costs $25 for members and $45 for non-members), the museum accrues half its annual budget. This kind of outreach into the community and broadening of interpretation beyond the museum’s walls is a creative way to help sustain the institution. Even more unique is the opportunity to apply for a scholarship that includes an annual family membership and 11 hikes. This opens up a fairly expensive experience to families of limited means.

What revenue-generating enterprises has your institution tried? Which have been successful?

Thanks to David Winslow for his insights into this topic.