The E-Sylum:  Volume 9, Number 8, February 19, 2006, Article 13


Katie Jaeger writes: "For those who did not see my Feb. 2006
Numismatist article on the American Institute medals, I wanted
to share the following information, that may be very useful for
anyone researching medals, engraving, die sinking and the related
arts in the 19th century.

Over the last two years, I have visited the New-York Historical
Society (NYHS) on multiple occasions to consult the full archives
of the American Institute of the City of New York.   This
organization, familiar to numismatists but hardly anyone else
in the history community, endured until 1982, though most people
are not aware of its post-1929 activities. From 1929 to 1955,
the Institute held no expositions and awarded only one important
medal per year at a fancy dinner (along with an honorarium of
$150K for an outstanding advance in science or technology).
It held annual youth science fairs in New York, and coordinated
600 national youth science clubs.

The Institute's sister organization, the New York Academy of
Sciences, eventually took over the science fairs, which are
still held in the old Institute building on 63rd St. Its other
sister organization, the American Association for the Advancement
of Sciences, took over the national science clubs in 1982, and
the Institute disbanded. The 491 boxes and 508 bound volumes in
its archives went to the NYHS, which sat on them until 1998,
when it got a Mellon grant of $100,000 to sort and classify them.

Every page had to be humidified so it could be unfolded, and
then everything had to be sorted, assigned to binders, boxes
and folders.  I know I was the first numismatic researcher ever
to consult this fabulous archive, and I wanted to let others know
that it is there, packed with information on just about everyone
and everything that was notable and newsworthy in American arts,
invention, agriculture and manufacture. This was a national
organization, so its content is not confined to New York City
subjects.   The NYHS website has a searchable guide to its contents.

I had gone to the library to look for mentions of my ancestors,
Robert Lovett, Sr. and his son George Hampden Lovett, who had
been the Institute’s die sinkers for 50 years.  I’d been finding
terrific stuff, like judges’ records filled out and signed by
Robert Sr., minutes of managers’ meetings that recorded his
conversations verbatim, George’s handwritten totals of how many
medals he struck in each metal each year.

The procedure at the library for looking at records is to
laboriously fill out calls slips one at a time, and wait for
the librarians to bring out what you've ordered.  I was stunned,
when I pulled the lid off a box labeled "Wax seals, Heavy" to
find, lying in the bottom, bumping around together with no
packing material and covered in a thick layer of greasy dirt,
a selection of steel medal dies, collars and metal-clad wooden
printing blocks. I was apparently the first researcher ever to
request this box, and probably the first person in 50 years to
know the purpose of the objects inside it.

hen I could breathe again, I arrayed the whole lot of objects
on a table and photographed them.  Later, my interest in the
dies prompted NYHS Senior Conservator Alan Balicki to take on
the task of conserving them, and he invited me to his lab to
photograph the process.  First, he cleaned them with acetone
and then mineral spirits, using cotton pads and a stiff-bristle
boar’s-hair brush, with his arms inside a fume hood that looks
a little like a prenatal incubator.

When returning them to storage in the library, Balicki sealed
them with a thin protective film of “Renaissance” microcrystalline
wax, and packed them with ethafoam sheeting in new, correctly
labeled archival boxes.  Surprisingly, the NYHS decided to leave
these dies in the manuscript collections, rather than transferring
them to the museum collections.  This means anyone can still see
them by filling out the usual library call slips, rather than
going through the special request/appointment-only procedure
for viewing items from the museum collections.

I had received permission from the NYHS to take study impressions
of the dies before they were returned to storage.  Having no
experience whatsoever with this, I called Russ Rulau and he told
me beeswax works well, if it is kneaded and warmed to a workable
state.  Since I had only one afternoon to take impressions from
twelve dies, I feared all that kneading and pressing would be too
time consuming.  I decided to try a dental impression compound
called Reprosil which has a consistency similar to toothpaste and
hardens into a rubberlike material.  I knew that this substance
was safe and would do no harm to steel medal dies, because dentists
apply it to metal bridgework in people’s mouths, and curators at
the American Museum of Natural History use it to make impressions
of dinosaur bones (to use as molds to cast replica bones). Bird
taxidermists have even used it on anaesthetized live specimens in
the field, to take impressions of beaks and feet, and then release
the birds unharmed.

I called my dentist Geoffrey Dray, who recommended that I practice
first before my appointment.  He invited me to his office for a
primer, using his own supply of Reprosil, which comes in two tubes
and has to be mixed like epoxy glue: one agent is the adhesive and
the other makes it harden.  We practiced on some medals I had
brought along, and we were getting perfect negative impressions,
but for the problem of tiny air bubbles leaving tiny voids on the
face of the impressions.

Dray reasoned that the ideal way to avoid bubble formation
with Reprosil would be to inject a bead of the compound onto
the die surface using a large-chamber syringe, laying out a tight
spiral starting at the die’s center point. We tried this with a
dental syringe designed for the purpose, and it worked.  I bought
some big disposable veterinary syringes at my local farm supply
store, ordered some tubes of Reprosil from an online dental supply
outfit, and went off to New York.

On the American Institute medal dies, Balicki and I had trouble
with Dray’s application method, since the compound begins to set
up so quickly - in about two minutes.  We couldn’t get the stuff
mixed and loaded into the syringe fast enough, and it was setting
up while it was still in the nozzle.  We elected to spread it on
gently with a wooden tongue depressor.

The first thing we noted when we peeled off the hardened
impression material, was how it had lifted off the tiny flecks
of dirt and lint that could not be removed by Balicki’s brush
and solvents.  The second thing we noticed were those pesky air
bubbles. The impressions I took home have only a few bubbles
and are clear, sharp, and quite satisfactory for study purposes,
and unlike beeswax impressions, these rubber ones can’t be deformed
or dented, and will retain their shape indefinitely.  But I know
they can be improved upon.  The ideal procedure would be:

1)  Practice first, to get accustomed to working with the material.

2) Take an initial impression from each die, to lift out the
dirt and bits of airborne fuzz.

3) To avoid the formation of air bubbles, use the caulking
gun with mixing tip the Reprosil manufacturer offers.  I didn’t
do this because the gun costs $39.95 and the cartridges are
$34.95 , but serious researchers would certainly be willing to
spring for this reusable device.  The gun has two chambers,
one for the hardening agent and one for the impression material.
These are blended together in a corkscrew-tube mixing nozzle
just prior to exiting onto the surface of the object.  This
gives the maximum work time for laying out the necessary concentric
spiral, and the unused Reprosil remains in the cartridges, so there
is no waste.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun with this and wanted to pass the
information along."

[Katie's article is a gem, and I'm glad to be able to publish
this additional background material.  It is a rare treat for
researchers to be able to view virgin resource material such
as this.  I'm also certain that many other such troves are out
there just waiting for the right researcher to come along and
discover them.  -Editor]

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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