A South Carolina Department's Effort to Save Deteriorating Constitutions

Jan 19, 2017

South Carolina's original constitutions are breaking down. The several hundred-year-old parchments are tattered with frayed edges, browning corners, and stiff pages. In an effort to save the documents, archivists are seeking to preserve them permanently. For now, the documents lay unseen in a temperature-controlled room. 

"Everything in here is 60 degrees, less than 50% relative humidity," says Eric Emerson, Director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Inside the Archives
Credit Josh Floyd

The massive, white archives are packed with gray shelving organized with records from the beginning of American history: from real estate records to blue prints of an old asylum. But the crown jewels of the archives rest on the first of the three floors, on a chest-high gray shelf: South Carolina's seven constitutions. 

The first was ratified in 1776, the last in 1890 which is still followed today. Emerson says having all the documents together is critical to understanding the state's history.

"It's a snapshot of the way that South Carolinians were viewing the government, social issues, the way the world should look at that particular moment in time and so taken together... it's a very fascinating progression of political thought," says Emerson.

South Carolina's Constitution of 1776
Credit Josh Floyd

In 1776, a constitution was ratified to implement a temporary government while the colonies repaired their relationship with Great Britain. In 1861, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union during the Civil War. The constitution of 1868 secured more democratic values than any other so far, giving a vote to former slaves, providing more equitable representation, and establishing public education.

Emerson says it's lucky the constitutions are all in one place. In 1865, the first four were almost lost when Union Army Leader General Sherman burned down the state house in Columbia. The documents were rescued, but were soon forgotten in a rustic basement, vulnerable to humidity, temperature changes, and vermin.

Constitution of 1861
Credit Josh Floyd

"Some of these documents, like this, we really can't put in display because it's in such bad condition," says Pat McCawley, the Supervisor of the Archival Processing Unit.

The damage to the documents is clear. Each one has unique issues including missing pieces, stains, fading ink, and holes left by small animals.

In the 1950s, conservators attempted to preserve the constitutions from further harm using the Barrow Method, which essentially laminates the paper with a substance called acetate. McCawley says it was the preferred technique for a long time: "the idea at the time was, it was meant to make the paper last three to five hundred years longer than it might naturally."

Pat McCawley, left, and Eric Emerson, right, looking at a drawing of Columbia's asylum
Credit Josh Floyd

It turns out acetate doesn't react well with acid. Parchment at the time was acidic, "so the paper itself starts self-destructing as soon as it’s made," says McCawley. He says the reaction has caused the constitutions to brown.

The Constitution of 1868
Credit Josh Floyd

McCawley and Emerson are now seeking a longer-term solution to address both past neglect and ineffective preservation. They're seeking $200,000 from the state of South Carolina to begin steps towards repairing the documents. Those would include de-laminating the document in an acetone bath, cleaning the document clean with a cotton swab, and strengthening the paper. McCawley says "it can get kind of complex."

The expenditure would also account for travel cases, "so the people of SC don't have to travel to Columbia to see these records that kind of... represents the values of South Carolina," says Emerson.

"It's a snapshot of the way that South Carolinians were viewing the government, social issues, the way the world should look at that particular moment in time."

Emerson adds the time is right to repair these documents: "We need to do it now or it might be another five to seven years. And as time goes by the documents are only going to get worse, not better."

Emerson and McCawley are meeting with legislators now to propose the endeavor. If successful, they hope to see the funds by late May or Early June.