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Paper deterioration is a complex process that you could spend years trying to understand. It is made especially complex because various destructive processes interact with each other.
You can go a long way toward preserving your collection by appreciating these major problems that destroy paper.
Obviously, you want to handle your paper carefully. You want to protect it from tearing, folding, and rumpling. As far as mistreatment goes, clear plastic holders help immensely.
No matter how careful you are, your paper will still deteriorate if you do not minimize the effects of acid. Over the long term, I suggest acid is the greatest single threat to paper collectibles.
The paper that was used for making stocks and bonds was typically high quality rag paper with low pulp content. Properly preserved, the paper used for typical stocks and bonds will last for decades with little deterioration.
But acid dramatically shortens the life of paper. Even extremely weak acid. Even the very best paper.
Understand that the acid we are talking about is not in liquid form. The acid that attacks paper is really nothing more than free hydrogen protons that move freely throughout the fibrous structure of paper. And very freely between pieces of paper. If you have ever seen what happens to a piece of good paper that is stored with newspaper, you will understand the severity of acid destruction.
Most acid deterioration probably comes from other paper. Specifically, most acid originates with the lignin that comes from wood pulp.
Practically every kind of paper carries some acidic content. In fact, unless you specifically buy "acid-free" materials, you will find significant amounts of acid in all sorts of storage materials, including backing boards, cardboard, manila folders, storage boxes, matting, drawer liners, and envelopes. Even from wooden cabinets and boxes.
Once you appreciate the danger, you will avoid letting your certificates contact anything that might contain acid.
Acid can also come from environmental sources such as acidic atmosphere. As deleterious as that might seem, I suspect that atmospheric effects are minimal compared to contact with other paper products. I have no idea where cigarette smoke might figure in, but I cannot imagine it being beneficial.
Fountain pen inks tend were be weakly acidic. Given sufficient time, ink pen marks, such as in signatures, will eat completely through many papers.
Acid can come from a variety of sources. Avoid letting your certificates contact anything that might have an acidic content. That means not letting your certificates contact ANY other paper.
Archivists have special instruments to measure acidity, but I don't. A few years ago, I performed an experiment in my kitchen to determine which kinds of papers were acidic and which were not. I put drops of water on all sorts of typical paper used by stamp, paper money, and certificate collectors. I let the water set a minute or so, and then measured the acid content with pH paper. We're not talking rocket-science here. And I didn't want to pay some lab to do it for me. So I will never say my results are completely scientific.
But, here is what I found. Neutral water has a pH of 7. Any pH measurement lower than 7 is acidic.
|white copy paper||6.0|
|white backing board||5.5|
|kraft envelope||5.3 to 5.5|
|white envelope||4.7 to 5.3|
|black stamp book paper||4.5 to 5.0|
|glassine envelope||4.5 to 5.0|
I realize that the pH values of paper varies among manufacturers. But you can see that all the papers I tested were somewhat acidic. Most importantly, some of the "best" papers were the most acidic.
Take the "black stamp book paper" listed above. That was paper that came out of several expensive stamp albums. All the pages were acidic. Some were almost as acidic as newsprint.
Surprisingly, I found the same thing with glassine envelopes. The are the standard storage envelopes used in the stamp hobby. I contend that neither storage method is safe UNLESS you buy the really good stuff. And the good stuff is expensive.
One final thing to understand is that the pH scale is logarithmic. In other words, a pH of 5 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 6. A pH of 4 is 100 times more acidic than a pH of 6.
With time, light breaks the structure of most chemical compounds. Even plastic. By comparison, paper is terribly easy to destroy. Yet, the destruction might not be as simple as breaking chemical bonds. It may be more like a multi-step process, whereby light first causes photo-degradation. That degradation, might go on to release trapped acids, which in turn destroys paper even more quickly.
Obviously, light causes fading, especially in red-based pigments. Light in the ultraviolet (UV) part of the spectrum is most damaging because it is more energetic than visible light. Up to 25% of sunlight is ultraviolet light. Light from ordinary fluorescent lights can emit up to 7% of their energy in the UV spectrum.
There are special films and glasses available that limit the transmittal of UV, particularly from fluorescent lights.
Avoidance is the cheapest and most effective method of protecting your certificates. Avoid UV. Use ordinary, old fashioned incandescent lights which do not emit UV.
If you encounter a faded document, you should automatically expect deeper, hidden chemical deterioration waiting to appear in the future. Moreover, if you see a piece of paper that is 'sunburned,' yellowed, or browned, you should expect related brittleness and early disintegration. The Yreka Railroad certificate at the top of this page is one such certificate. Many certificates from this company show sunburning along the left margin.
Heat speeds up chemical reactions. If there is any acid in your paper (and you can be assured of that!), heat will increase chemical activity and deterioration. You have probably heard it a hundred times, but please take it to heart -- store your paper in cool, dry locations. Generally that means places with temperatures below 75 degrees and a relative humidity below 60 percent.
I have one source that suggests that paper life is doubled for every 10 degree F decrease in temperature. (See Archives & Manuscripts: Conservation, a manual on physical care and management, by Mary Lynn Ritzenhaler, Society of American Archivists, 1983)
Equally amazing is a footnote in the same reference that looks at paper lifespan from the opposite viewpoint. Say that a certificate would last 100 years if stored at 68 degrees F. Its life span would shorten to 25 years if it were stored at 86 degrees F!!
Obviously, you want to avoid moisture. Even a moist atmosphere. Not just because of what moisture will do to the paper directly, but because of its secondary effects. Those effects include rotting, mildew, and the attraction of insects.
Foxing is evidence of aging, but the exact causes are poorly understood. Some foxing may be related to fungal growth, and other foxing may be related to oxidation of iron or copper left over from the mechanical process of breaking apart wood and rag fibers. In my experience, many proof impressions of vignettes and certificates show foxing. Foxing is only minimally reversible and often fraught with problems. Generally, it seems that foxing is best avoided by dry storage and good air circulation.
Mildew is a bacterial growth related to the bacteria that causes foxing. Mildew usually appears more as black and gray spots, generally along edges of documents stored in very damp environments. (Document mildew is particularly common the southeast part of the U.S.) Early evidence of mildew is its distinctive odor.
Hopefully, you keep your paper stored away from insects and rodents. Be very careful, though. Maybe even paranoid. Damage from insects can be very quick. And damage from rodents, even an escaped pet, can be immediate and non-reversible.
In my estimation, the wisest thing you can do is store your certificates singly in polyester holders. Specifically, polyester holders made of Dupont Mylar D. Most of the better certificate dealers carry this type of Mylar. It is not cheap. It is immeasurably cheaper than trying to replace documents.
There are also holders out there made of other plastic materials, including polyvinyl acetate. Whatever you do, avoid vinyl holders. If you have any of these holders I beg you to get rid of them immediately. What makes the vinyl so bad are plasticizers. They are chemicals added to make the vinyl flexible and supple. I have seen many pieces of paper money stored in vinyl for so low that they appeared almost soaked in grease. Don't let that happen to you.
Polypropylene, triacetate, and polyethylene holders are okay, provided you use archival quality holders. (See links to companies that specialize in archival storage.)
Thicker holders cost more, but they provide better support for fragile documents. It might be wise to give additional protection to your most valuable pieces.
You should always store your certificates in a flat position. Some people store them in pages in large presentation books. That is okay provided that the pages are guaranteed non-acidic. Do not assume that pages are safe, even in very expensive books.
Until you have the time to thoroughly study paper and paper repairs, it is probably best to avoid ALL repairs. Especially repairs that involve tapei
Having said that, I will say that there are excellent archival tapes now available that are extremely stable and non-acidic. However, even those should be used sparingly. Any repairs you attempt should be done so someone can reverse them in a few years.
Many stock certificates from the 19th century are found glued to their original stubs. Some people remove the stubs. I suggest you remove stubs ONLY when you think doing so will increase the value of the certificate. And ONLY if you develop the skill to remove the stub safely.
Certificates were normally glued to stubs with either paste or hide glues. Some glues release quickly under the application of steam. (Remember, steam = heat = damage.)
Other removal methods require adventurous chemical processes. Unfortunately, steam often leaves certificates wrinkled. And chemical solvents can damage ink and paper fibers. Even when stubs are successfully removed, brown stains normally remain. The certificate shown exhibits both the brown staining and wrinkled paper typical of stub removal.
In general, I recommend leaving stubs attached. I take a more pragmatic approach than many beginning collectors. I suggest, if you do not like stubs attached to your certificates, do not buy certificates with stubs. Save your money and buy the certificates you really want.
Personally, I don't like stubs, but each to his own.
Some conservationists use deacidification solutions to buffer the effects of acid normally found in paper. Some conservationists are strident in their insistence on stopping acid deterioration before it starts. I agree.
Perhaps the best known method is the application of a solution containing an alkaline agent, particularly ethoxy magnesium ethyl carbonate. The most famous solution is sold under the brand name "Wei T'O" and is available in a number of different solutions appropriate for different types of preservation needs. See links to archival storage companies. and to the subject of restoration and repair.
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