Rockford’s Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum, 411 Kent St., has been presented with an Illinois Association of Museums Award of Excellence in the area of Best Practices — Collection Conservation for the restoration of a Robert Tinker letter.
The staff had been in the process of cleaning the sewing room in 2011. While moving one of the dressers out to clean behind it, Steve Litteral noticed that the floor boards had been cut. Curious as to what might be there, he reached in and grabbed as much as he could. He found a small pile of bricks and what he assumed was paper for insulation. Then, the staff began to examine the paper and found two letters, three newspaper clippings and an envelope. The envelope was from Robert Tinker to his wife, Mary Tinker. The letter had been burned, torn into small pieces, and stuffed into the recesses of the floor before the passage was blocked with bricks. The words were faded, and the message was too faint to read. Even the meaning of hiding the letter was unclear to the staff.
Two years after the discovery, the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum had raised enough money for restoration, and Curator Ashley Downing sent the letter to Graphic Conservation, a restoration company in Chicago that deals primarily with paper artifacts. The letter was cleaned, washed, deacidified, and repaired with Japanese tissue before being sealed in archival plastic and returned to the museum. The finished work arrived back in the museum in excellent condition, with only a few areas of noticeable restoration.
The restored letter shows bits and pieces of sentences hinting at some business that Tinker, who was then Rockford’s mayor, might be engaged in. There is a reference to coal miners, which is unclear. Tinker said he was writing for a lawyer. He also mentions a person named Hinkley, who was getting ready to go to England. Hinkley was someone who was living in Westfield, New York, at the time. Tinker also expressed concern for his wife at home, who had no one but Fred (her brother) there to help her. Unfortunately, as Downing told us, most of the right side of the letter is missing, so only bits and pieces are readable even with restoration (see full text at end of this article).
Plans for the letter have not yet been decided, Downing said. Graphic Conservation returned it sealed in archival plastic. Sometimes letters are put on display; other times they are kept in storage.
Many museums are not required to canvass the hidden places of their museum, trying to find any last remnants of the family, showing the uniqueness of the artifact and the situation. If not for Steve Litteral’s curiosity, the museum would never have been able to find the letter or learn of its contents. This hidden gem of personal, family information would have continued to deteriorate, and if someone had found it in the future, it could have been too late to learn the valuable information it contained.
The staff at Tinker Swiss Cottage will receive the award at the Illinois Association of Museums Annual Conference Oct. 22.
Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum was founded in 1942 and has served the Winnebago County and surrounding areas through education, outreach and events. Sam Oliveri is the president of the Board of Trustees.
Following is full text of the letter (keep in mind, portions are missing):
March 27, 1874
My dear wife
I feel really ashamed to think I have been gone so long and never reported myself at all But each day has gone by itself till it is now Friday. Tomorrow will be Saturday and I can’t — weather Ill be home then or not. Mothers are not — love yet – I got carefully — to some Coal miners lost enough — aunt to supper with Parson — Palmer H. and had a useful — perplexity for our evening but hers. I am again writing for a lawyer and wants you in the morning train – I — promise of Nortons — and office which I would be glad to avail myself of it I could only get mothers — between — and — Hinkley is getting ready to go to England and I would arrange with him and old Crawford right under foot all the time. I wish a fever would size him — can have no idea of how — sight of him unnerve me — are you at home? I worry — and you with no one but Fred — to things and for fear — don’t want to do. He — a little merriment and — should be sorry to get him upset — be in the only comfort I ever had in the way of help. But I must stop – Sorry I can’t be with you more definitely.
From the Oct. 15-21, 2014, issue