Colonial Williamsburg preserving Ghent Treaty Box

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – The historic box that carried the treaty ending the War of 1812, thus resolving the final hostilities between the United States and Britain, currently is undergoing conservation at Colonial Williamsburg.

The box served a brief but important function in the history of the early Republic. Following 21/2 years of conflict, war with Britain concluded at the signing of a treaty Dec. 24, 1814, in Ghent, Belgium. Because of the uncertainty of travel at the time, American officials sent three separate copies of the treaty across the Atlantic to ensure the safe arrival of one.

First to arrive.

Henry Carroll, secretary to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay, was the first to arrive in Washington with the treaty, carrying it in the brass-studded, leather-covered document box now known as the Ghent Treaty Box.

Carroll delivered the treaty to President James Madison at the Octagon, the Tayloe family home that served as the temporary presidential residence after the British burned the White House. When signed by Madison on Feb. 17, 1815, this document officially ended the War of 1812.

The document joined the collection at the National Archives while the Ghent Treaty Box was passed down through the Carroll family, who donated it in 1940 to the Octagon, the Museum of the American Architectural Foundation.

Box has deteriorated.

Although the peace heralded by the Ghent Treaty has survived unscathed for 185 years, the box in which it arrived has not. Over time, the leather covering on the box deteriorated badly. Nearly a quarter of the leather was lost, with many missing areas patched long ago with poorly matching colored resin. The remaining leather was cracked, cupped and peeling and the brass trim corroded.

As the treaty box was too fragile and unsightly for exhibition, curators at the Octagon approached Colonial Williamsburg’s department of conservation for help.

Leroy Graves, Colonial Williamsburg’s conservator of upholstery, and Heather Porter, graduate intern from the Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum in London, undertook the examination and painstaking treatment of the box. Because of the delicate condition of the box, much of the work has been carried out beneath a microscope.

Remedies tried.

Treatment has included flattening and stabilizing the cupped leather, carefully readhering it to the wooden box, patching losses with matching leather, and removing an old coating that disfigured and darkened the original surface. Although conservation of the box is still under way, Sherry Birk, director of collections at the Octagon, recently came to Williamsburg and was pleased with the progress.

“To have an important object like the treaty box that was in such poor condition come back to life is just amazing. One always hopes for something like this, but it rarely happens so dramatically.”

Preservation projects.

The Ghent Treaty Box is one of number of objects Colonial Williamsburg’s conservation department has conserved for other institutions in the past two years.

“We are pleased to be offering our services to other museums,” said Carey Howlett, director of conservation. “This is becoming an important aspect of Colonial Williamsburg’s outreach efforts. It is gratifying to help other institutions preserve their collections. It also is exciting to have the opportunity to study and treat some really fascinating historic objects.”

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