From the Vault: Saving Rochester’s History

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Here in Local History & Genealogy, I have the privilege of overseeing the division’s 500+ cubic feet of special collections that include personal papers, records, and manuscripts related to the history of the Genesee Valley region. These important primary sources are invaluable to the preservation of our collective memory and provide first-hand glimpses into the lives of local luminaries and average citizens alike. Comprised of paper-based documents, maps, glass plate negatives, lantern slides, original artwork–and yes, even hair–highlights of these collections include a 1792 deed signed by Ebenezer “Indian” Allen; unpublished histories and biographies; and personal papers of Susan B. Anthony, former Rochester mayor Hiram Edgerton, and Nathaniel Rochester and the Rochester family, among many others.

Sometimes, my job is a bit like that of an archeologist: finding hidden treasures in dark corners, behind shelves, and at the bottom of long-forgotten boxes. My task is then to assess the condition of these materials, determine whether they adhere to our collection policy, research the context in which the materials were created, and determine how best to preserve, interpret, and make these collections accessible in such a way to ensure that they’ll be around for years to come. While digital collections are an excellent way to provide accessibility to and in many cases, preservation of materials, these bits and bytes of data wouldn’t exist without the physical artifact. The educational aspect of primary sources is also undeniable. Showing a 4th grade student a digitized version of Frederick Douglass’s North Star on a computer is fine. But putting an original, physical copy in front of the same student will elicit a much more visceral response; one that they will remember far beyond the flickering of the computer screen.

To ensure that these important sources are preserved for future generations, the Local History Division has been able to take advantage of several funding opportunities to aid in the quest to preserve some of our area’s historical treasures. This funding has allowed the conservation of several important objects and documents, such as the restoration of a bound full run of The Revolution inscribed by Susan B. Anthony, and the repair, flattening, and deacidification of a 1904 Cirkut photo. Take a look at some of our other significant past conservation projects:

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Deed to Genesee River mill signed by Ebenezer Allen, 1792.


Original illustration by Clifford Ulp, c. 1934, which Ulp created for the cover of the book commemorating the Rochester Centennial (seen below).


Many more items in our special collections require a conservator’s attention to avoid losing them entirely. And so, without further ado, I present to you…Local History’s Top Five Endangered Artifacts!

1. Scrapbook of photographs, smallpox victims at Hope Hospital, c. 1902

A horrifying but valuable and powerful document of the 1902 smallpox epidemic, this album documents the efforts of Chief Health Officer Dr. George Goler to expand Hope Hospital, then located on the river bank at Mt. Hope Cemetery. The photographs, notable for their graphic content, are mounted on highly acidic construction paper. These acids, in addition to the adhesives used to affix the photographs, will continue to deteriorate the images over time.

The photographs show silver mirroring. The brittle paper backing is also beginning to fracture.

The photographs show silver mirroring. The brittle paper backing is also beginning to fracture.

2. George Rafter microphotography plates, c. 1886

Created with a photomicroscope of his own invention, Rafter donated this collection of about 100 mounted albumen prints of bacteria in 1888. Rafter, a pioneer in water and sewer management systems, also donated his detailed notes about each plate. Each print is mounted on acidic paperboard that is moderately warped. Albumen prints are particularly susceptible to light and environmental damage.


Albumen photographs show signs of fading and the acidic backing is brittle.

3. Map of Rochester, 1811

This hand-drawn map, believed to have been penned by Nathaniel Rochester, shows lots owned by Rochester, Fitzhugh, and Carroll. The map was in possession of Thomas Montgomery, grandson of  Rochester, and includes a handwritten note by Montgomery.


The map, backed with linen, has breaks along the fold lines and shows significant fading.

4. Military document, 1795

This document, which appoints Joseph Blackmore to the post of Lieutenant of the Herkemer [sic] County militia, is signed by George Clinton, 1st governor of New York State and later the 4th vice-president of the United States.The paper has split along its fold lines, and subsequent attempts to repair the breaks with acidic adhesive tape have resulted in pronounced vertical and horizontal brown staining. Because the tape is still attached, acid migration will continue to deteriorate the paper.

Acid migration from the Scotch tape will continue to deteriorate this document.

Acid migration from the Scotch tape will continue to deteriorate this document.

5. Powers Block albumen photo, c. 1890s

This framed albumen photograph (15.5”x13”) of the Powers Block is the only one of its kind in the collection. Conservator’s notes indicate that the mount is highly acidic, and there is staining on the photograph itself from the wooden slats in the frame. Because albumen prints have a tendency to fade faster than other photographic processes, conservation is recommended in order to halt continuing degradation from the mount and wood framing.

Which of these artifacts would you save first, and why? We’d love to hear from you in our Comments section!

~Cheri Crist, Librarian & Certified Archivist


McKelvey, Blake. “Historic Origins of Rochester’s Social Welfare Agencies.” Rochester History 9, nos. 2 & 3 (April 1947).

Published in: on August 15, 2014 at 10:12 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for such a thought provoking post and invitation to comment. While the map would seem to be foundational to local history collections, it is the smallpox group that I would go for. We take freedom from that scourge and others for granted in our time. Yet, a quick visit to Mount Hope, and/or a reading of pre-vaccination era letters will quickly demonstrate that most of human existence was dominated by the consequences of diseases like smallpox. These documents serve as a “healthy” reminder of the need to be vigilant and how daunting it was for a community like Rochester to cope with the ravages of the disease.

    • I agree that we need to be reminded of what our predecessors went through, especially since 1902 really isn’t that long ago in the human timeline. The photos are a heartbreaking reminder of what used to be, but they also serve as testimony to Dr. Goler’s dedication in caring for the patients affected by the epidemic. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Cheri, do you have any manuscript documents related to the Sibley or Watson families? Many thanks.

    Margie Searl

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Hi Margie, we don’t have anything on the Watsons; as far as the Sibley family, our collection includes a small number of letters from Hiram Sibley in the Isaac Butts papers.

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