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Four portrait images depict the Jordan family, one man and three women, in sepia tones.
Crayon enlargements in the Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. After conservation treatment. From left to right: Nelson W. Jordan, Julia Womack, Carrie Jordan (on flat support), Carrie Jordan (on convex support). September 2022.

Treatment of Crayon Enlargements from the Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers

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This is a guest post by Senior Photograph Conservator Alisha Chipman and Senior Paper Conservator Gwenanne Edwards in the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress.

The Conservation Division recently treated four crayon enlargements from the Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers from the Manuscript Division. See this previous blog post for background information on Nelson W. Jordan and his family and a description of the conservation treatment of a panoramic portrait from the same collection.


Crayon enlargements, also called crayon portraits, are photographic prints with hand-applied media such as pastel, chalk, watercolor, and conté crayon. The photographs are usually silver-based images projection-printed onto lightweight paper. Typically, the prints are mounted onto a secondary support either of paperboard or of canvas that is stretched across a wood strainer. Convex crayon portraits are also common and consist of rectangular or oval secondary paperboard mounts that have been molded to a convex shape. Crayon enlargements were popular in the United States from the 1860s through the 1920s – many of you may have inherited one that depicts one of your ancestors!

Photographic enlargements, such as the photograph component in crayon enlargements, became possible after the introduction of the solar enlarging camera in 1857. Prior to the solar enlarger, photographic prints were created through contact printing, where the negative was placed in direct contact with photosensitized paper during exposure, resulting in a print the same size as the negative. In contrast, the solar enlarger could project the image from the negative onto paper, producing a print larger than the negative. Operation of the solar enlarger was time consuming, challenging, and unreliable. It required the use of the sun as its light source and exposure times were long, so a mirror was adjusted throughout the exposure in order to track with the sun’s passage in the sky and direct the light through the lens. In addition, the lenses often needed repeat fine adjustments to minimize distortions and blur. After all this trouble, the results were far from perfect. Any defects in the negative were enlarged and more noticeable in the print. Images were often faint with low contrast and blurry edges.

Hand drawing to the rescue! The media applied to enlargements covered up their flaws and enhanced the images. These enhancements added aesthetic appeal and transformed the portrait into a unique object, creating an affordable alternative to painted portraits. Hand-colored photographs also filled the demand for color in photographs until color photographic processes, like the autochrome, became commercially viable in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Crayon enlargements could be colorful or monochromatic black, with media applied by hand or with an airbrush. The papers used as the primary support (the photosensitized paper) were usually of good quality made with cotton and linen fibers. However, the paperboard mounts consist of poor quality wood pulp that is acidic, becomes extremely brittle and darkens over time. Excessive light exposure from decades of continuous display, along with possible high temperatures, fluctuating relative humidity, poor handling, and insect and water damage often leaves these portraits in a state of severe degradation.

The Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers included two flat crayon portraits mounted to paperboard, one flat crayon portrait mounted to a canvas and strainer, and one convex crayon portrait. They exhibited all of the damage typical to crayon enlargements: embrittlement, darkening, staining, tears, losses, and insect damage. All were in desperate need of some TLC!

Two sepia-toned portrait images depict a young woman. The left image has tide lines and other dark brown stains along the edges, while the conserved right image is free of these stains.
Julia Womack, crayon enlargement, Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Before treatment (left) and after treatment (right). Conservation Division, September 2022.

Conservation Treatment

After careful testing, we followed the same treatment approach for the portraits of Julia Womack and Carrie Jordan that were mounted to secondary supports of flat paperboard. The media hand-applied over these photographs was slightly powdery, at risk of lifting off the surface of the prints. The first treatment step was to consolidate the unstable media using a dilute adhesive dissolved in solvent and applied by spraying through an airbrush. This step ensured that the media would be undisrupted during the following treatment steps and future handling. We then immersed the prints in water solutions. After a short time, the adhesives used to mount the prints became soft and the poor-quality paperboard secondary supports could be removed by carefully peeling them away in small sections. We continued bathing the prints to removed water-soluble degradation products from the papers and then lightened the papers using an artificial light source. Finally, we mended all of the tears in the papers and lined the prints overall using a thin, high-quality paper. The linings provide additional strength and stability to the prints. When the prints were dry and flat, we secured them into simple mat board folders with photo corners for long-term storage.

Two sepia-toned portrait image of an older man. The left image shows multiple tears and staining, while the conserved right image shows mended tears and less staining.
Nelson W. Jordan, crayon enlargement, Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Before treatment (left) and after treatment (right). Conservation Division, September 2022.

We treated the portrait of Nelson W. Jordan similarly, but with a few extra steps. The portrait was originally mounted to canvas that was stretched over a wood strainer, so we first cut the canvas from the strainer. We then consolidated, removed the backing, washed, light bleached, mended, lined, and dried the portrait as described previously. In addition, we addressed the numerous losses, both in the paper and image, of this portrait. We filled small paper losses with tissue toned to match the area of loss and in-painted media losses along tears. There were several distracting old repairs in the upper left portion of the portrait that did not match the surrounding areas, so we reduced those repairs and visually reintegrated them with the surrounding areas.

Four sepia-toned portrait images depict a young woman. The top two images show the torn portrait with fragmented pieces, front and back. The bottom right image shows the mended portrait, while the left depicts a custom support.
Carrie Jordan, convex crayon enlargement, Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Before treatment, front and back (top left and right). After treatment (bottom left), and with custom convex support (bottom right). Conservation Division, September 2022.

The other crayon enlargement of Carrie Jordan was on an extremely weak, brittle, and acidic convex paperboard mount. The poor quality of the mount and previous handling of the convex shape had caused the portrait to break into numerous fragments and there were severe losses and tears around the edges. Large fragments were held together with two layers of tape on the back and a smaller piece of tape on the front. Additionally, the media enhancing the photographic image was very friable.

Conservation treatment of this object was extremely difficult. The mount was so weak that we could not safely remove the primary paper support. As a result, we treated the object in situ, as a whole. After removing the tapes on the front and back and reducing the adhesive, we consolidated the unstable media. We also consolidated the paperboard with the same adhesive to inhibit flaking of its weak layers. We mended tears and reattached fragments using a multistep process to ensure stabilization of the fragile object. Because the support losses were so extensive, we decided to fill support losses only where necessary for its structural integrity. Finally, we in-painted media losses along tears.

Although conservation treatment stabilized the powdery media and united previously taped and detached fragments of the support, the portrait was still vulnerable due to the inherent poor quality of the materials and its convex shape. To aid in its preservation, we made a custom housing for long-term storage of the object, which included a cushion mount constructed to fit the shape of the object, attached to a larger board laminate. We secured the object to the mount with two hinges, and housed the mounted object in a flat box.

Top image depicts the damaged, fragmented portrait from the side, with the convex angle apparent. Bottom image depicts the portrait on custom convex support, post-treatment.
Carrie Jordan, convex crayon enlargement, Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Side views: before treatment (above) and after treatment on its custom convex support (below). Conservation Division, September 2022.

The crayon enlargements from the Nelson W. Jordan Family Papers were treated in collaboration between a photograph conservator and a paper conservator, emblematic of the hybrid nature of these objects with both photographic and hand drawn elements. These portraits from this important American family will now be preserved and available to researchers in the Manuscript Division, along with accompanying family correspondence, genealogical information, scrapbooks, diaries, speeches, sermons, and notebooks documenting Jordan family members and in-laws in Virginia and New Jersey in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries.


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Comments (4)

  1. Thanks so much. I now know what that photo of my great-grandfather probably is! I have the original photo, so it was obviously made from it. Rips and tears—check! Brittle—check! “Hand-colored”—check! Now if only I had a conservation division to take care of it for me…

    • Thank you for sharing! You can check out preservation resources and information here or by using our Ask a Librarian tool.

  2. That was really a great post. Thanks for sharing the information. Waiting for another.

  3. That blog entry was excellent. I appreciate you providing the knowledge. I’m awaiting another.

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