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Restoration of a forces' letter

Condition prior to restoration

The old stock of the museum includes a forces' letter made of birch bark. This letter from the First World War was rediscovered in an archive, folded in a cigar box. Since nothing was known about the document, we decided to unfold it in order to learn something about what was in it. Unfolding a piece of birch bark that is almost 100 years old without taking any further measures would have resulted in the complete destruction of the letter. Therefore, we looked for a procedure that would soften the bark and enable us to unfold the letter safely. We furthermore had to make sure that the softening would not make the writing illegible.
Intermediate condition during treatment: Softening of birch bark in a desiccator

We contacted Dr. Gelbrich from the wood conservation department of the German Shipping Museum, who is very knowledgeable about rare materials used to write on. The procedure this department has developed uses ethanol vapour and has been successfully applied in connection with birch bark letters. Nevertheless, our letter proved a special challenge since it was decorticated in such a way that the bark was particularly thin. If the wood fibres do not sufficiently absorb the plasticizer, the bark breaks immediately and cannot be unfolded. After being kept in ethanol vapour for several weeks, the birch bark was soft enough and could be slowly unfolded by applying weights. The letter was subsequently fixed between two plates of acrylic glass to prevent it from deforming irregularly. We were then able to begin to decipher the hardly discernible writing in our museum. In the grazing light of the stereomicroscope, the left upper corner shows the impressing of a two copeck coin of 1912. To improve the legibility of the pencil writing, the document was scanned and digital image processing carried out. With the help of pseudocolours, we were able to increase the contrast between the yellowish surface of the birch bark and the light grey pencil writing of the letter. This enabled us to decipher the distinct handwriting of the author of the letter with the exception of a few words.

condition after restoration

Serviceman Hans wrote to his parents on 13 July 1915: After the trench warfare came the marches to Courland (Latvia). He writes about the fly plague, the little mail from home and the poor communication with the local people. Unfortunately, only his first name is preserved on the letter.

We thank Dr. Gelbrich from the German Shipping Museum in Bremerhaven for supporting this project. The digital image processing was carried out by Mr. Heldenmaier. Mr. Frei (M.A.) deciphered the handwriting with a practiced eye.


L. Strobach
Qualified Restorator