“Hello? Can you hear me? Janet?” The caller was shouting and sounded a little uncertain. “Yes,” I responded, “I can hear you clearly.” “My name is Kim. I’m calling from the belly of the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA.” She said.
This has got to be a gag. I thought. Who would be calling me from the belly of a Battleship!
“I wasn’t sure the reception would be clear down here,” she confirmed. “We are in the middle of major restoration throughout the ship. There’s a lot of noise! Janet. I’m the museum services director for the NORTH CAROLINA. I hire experts to reconstruct various projects. That’s why I am calling you.” I put down the delicate beadwork project I was working on and held the phone a little closer to my ear. What in the world could a jewelry designer and restorer like me do in the restoration of a Battleship?
“The battleship has a sterling silver punch bowl that needs help,” Kim said. “Silver punch bowl?” I repeated. “Yes, this punch bowl has six candelabras attached to it and each has a shade with beaded fringe.” Is this the kind of thing you do?” She asked. Finally I understood enough to ask intelligent questions.
“Kim, do you have any pictures?” I asked. “You’re going to have to send one to me.. It’s so hard for me to visualize what you are talking about.” “Let’s start by exchanging e-mail addresses,” She suggested.
Every day brings new learning experiences and that day opened a new world to me: Naval history. The punch bowl turned out to be truly magnificent. It was the centerpiece of a sterling silver service that consisted of 121 pieces. It was given to the Department of Navy and Armored Cruiser NORTH CAROLINA on July 4, 1908 by the citizens of North Carolina and the legislature in a ceremony on the open sea. This gift demonstrated their appreciation to the Navy for the honor of naming “the fastest ship in its service” after their commonwealth.
Chief Yeoman Rarrot who was stationed on the NORTH CAROLINA describes the silver service: “The decoration of the pieces is an artistic combination of reminders of the state and the sea; Representations of seaweeds, shells and dolphins are to be found around the base of the bowl, tea set and pitcher, while the trays have roped borders (with tobacco and cotton plants) with the American eagle on each side and the coats of arms of the State and of the Navy.”
The history of the Cruiser is filled with many heroic feats: In 1909, she participated in a inspection tour of the construction of the Panama Canal, her first assignment. Later, she cruised the Mediterranean to protect Americans threatened by the Turkish Empire and provided a medical relief party to treat surviving Armenian massacre victims. Prior to World War I, she brought home the bodies of the dead crew of the MAINE.
During World War I, she protected Americans in the Near East. On November 5, 1915, the NORTH CAROLINA launched the first plane while underway. The scout observation biplane piloted by LCDR Henry Mustin and crew was successfully catapulted from a rope mounted on her deck paving the way for the use of aircraft on battleships and cruisers.
Throughout all these great adventures, the silver service accompanied the ship. In June of 1920, the silver service was removed from the Cruiser and stored in a Naval warehouse until December of 1923. At the urgent request of the Daughters of the American Revolution of North Carolina, the Secretary of the Navy loaned the service to the State of North Carolina, with the stipulation that it be returned upon demand. The service resided in the North Carolina Governor’s mansion and was used for entertaining at special state events. Its presence in the mansion was much admired until the Navy demanded its return in September of 1928. Reluctantly, the Governor and the DAR released it and returned it to the Navy. Dearly missed by the North Carolinians, the petitioning for its return began immediately.
The Cruiser RALEIGH was the silver services’ next destination. It was used “as a symbol of Uncle Sam’s hospitality to foreign officials on its world tours.” However it did not remain long on the RALEIGH.
In 1930, an Act of Congress was passed and signed by President Hoover. It authorized the silver service returned to he people of North Carolina; so back home to the Governor’s Mansion it went.
The citizens of North Carolina purchased the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA in 1960 when the Navy announced their intentions to scrap it. She was opened to the public as a museum in October 1961. Today, this authentically restored World War II Battleship is a National Historic Landmark and serves as the World War II memorial honoring the 10,000 North Carolinians who gave their lives serving their country. NORTH CAROLINA shares this amazing sterling silver service with the Governor’s mansion.
A Restoration Job Underway
When I first saw the work ahead of me, all I could do was take a deep breath. This treasure needed help in the worst way. All those years of travel, bouncing around aboard the Battleship and being exposed to curious hands, cigar and cigarette smoke, dust, grime, moisture, and sea salt had taken quite a toll on the delicate thread and glass beads. The constant rubbing against the sharp edges of the mica lining had broken some of the threads, and many of the beads had been lost, but to the credit of caretakers, many of the original beads were saved, and the linen shades were intact and worthy of restoration.
I began by deciding what to do about the missing beads. I asked myself many questions: Should I try to match the old beads exactly? This was very unlikely because the age of the beads would make new ones difficult to find. Should I shorten the length of the fringe on all the shades? To do this I would have to pool all of the beads and create enough to supplement for the missing ones. But this would make all of the fringes shorter and alter the original look and character of the piece as a whole. I decided to try to avoid this at all costs. A total of 103 fringes were missing – a substantial number. Each shade originally held 77 fringes that were three inches long. To make it look as it once did was the best plan to attack.
My next strategy was to locate beads that were as close in color and shape as I could find. I knew this would be difficult.
In the conservation community, there is an ongoing debate. When restoring or conserving an article, do you make the work undetectable or noticeable? And is it permissible to destroy other articles of antiquity in order to make another as accurate as possible? In this case, I had little choice because of the difficulty of locating the exact matching beads. I have found that when restoring beadwork articles, it is extremely difficult to find the exact bead size and bead color. An undetectable restoration would be difficult if not impossible.
Luckily a late 19th Century crocheted purse solved my problem. I am not in favor of destroying one article to save another, but this little purse was a casualty of time and its true value was in assisting to resurrect the Battleship shades. When I originally compared the beads, I found them to be close match. However, after I removed the bead fringe from all of the shades and cleaned them, I discovered that years of being exposed to the elements – salt, smoke, and dirt, had disguised their true color. Still, it was the closest match I could hope for. By pooling all of the beads together, I could end up with enough to make all of the fringes the length they had been originally.
My next decision was the thread type and color. The original thread was a yellow cotton twist, which I knew I could not be able to find. This was just as well, because advances in technology would give me a much better thread today anyway. I chose nylon thread that was very close in color to the beads. Nylon thread is strong and does not stretch. I knew it would give the fringes years of new life.
When I began the beading process, I discovered that the linen shades were in good condition but the yellow hem tape that had been sewn around the edge would have to be reinforced. The years of use and the elements of dirt, salt, and moisture – had taken their toll on the hem tape too. It was weak, and small holes had become visible. The thread would eventually wear through, causing the restoration to fail. I solved the problem by stitching a thin strip of cotton netting to the back of the tape. The netting would assist in keeping the knots in place, keep holes from forming and support the weight of the bead fringe.
With the technical difficulties behind me, I began to bead. I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me, but with a tight schedule I should be able to finish in two months. Then, a totally unexpected situation occurred: My body rebelled! I did not take into consideration the stress the repetitive movement would have on my hands, shoulders, and arms. The words of another bead worker suddenly drifted into my head: “Be careful of working long periods of time in the same position.” I revamped my schedule, added breaks, and adjusted my work area. This advice is good for anyone attempting a major project and I heartily pass it on here.
I completed the shades in 130 intense hours of work. But in those hours, I developed a relationship that turned into a love affair with the silver service from the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA. I allowed my imagination to drift as I worked, and soon I could visualize the pomp and the ceremonies that the service must have witnessed. There were probably many days of danger too, when the service was stowed out of harm’s way. What stories it could tell if it could talk.
Today, the shades are safely back where they belong aboard the NORTH CAROLINA, symbolizing a time of grandeur and pride on the sea.