Conserving an historic family tree

Detail of the Lathrop family tree frame
A representative family tree in its original frame, showing the piece, backing board, wooden panel, and glass and frame. Courtesy R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, NEHGS

NEHGS is always looking to acquire family trees to add to our collection.  They come to us through donation or purchase, and their condition on arrival varies from pristine and framed to dirty and frayed.  Many a family tree crosses the threshold of the Society’s new Conservation Lab, where it is cleaned and repaired, resulting in a piece which can be safely stored or displayed.

The Lathrop family tree, which was featured in the Fall 2013 issue of American Ancestors magazine (p. 64), is a recent acquisition and can be used to demonstrate some of the preservation steps.

The first step involved removing the piece from its frame.  Often times we remove materials that have been in the same frame for a long time. The Lathrop family tree had wooden boards forming the outside back of the frame, and beneath that there was a backing board.  The board served to support the family tree and, whether the original framer knew it or not, to protect the original tree from the exterior wooden backing.  The original framer, in other words, may not have realized the damaging effects of wood on the paper he was framing. Over time, the acidic elements (in wood) migrate through the board, thus lowering the pH.  Acidic paper will degrade more quickly because it causes the cellulose fibers in the paper to break down.  Sometimes a piece will be attached to the backing, and we then need to assess the type of adhesive used and the best way to remove it.

When the Lathrop piece was removed from its enclosure, the first task was to remove any surface dirt.  We used a Chinese bristle brush, moving from the center of the piece outward.  We then used a plastic eraser to remove additional surface dirt. There were also paper tears needing repair.  This was done by using wheat paste to attach strips of Japanese paper on the back of the piece, thus stabilizing the paper of the family tree.

Dry surface cleaning was sufficient for this piece, but in some cases a piece must be washed. General practices for aqueous treatment of paper are to submerge the piece in a bath of distilled or de-ionized water (whichever is available) for a period of ten minutes. This process may have to be performed a few times until the object in the bath no longer retains any signs of dirt. This does not, as you may fear, dissolve the paper. However, I would not recommend doing this at home.

After the piece was cleaned and repaired, and while it was out of its frame, we photographed the piece for preservation and for reproduction.  We used a high resolution camera and, due to the size of the piece, it was photographed in 4 parts.  The images were then “stitched” together using Photoshop. Using the newly restored original and high resolution photography allows us to have an image we can reproduce that is true to the original.

Lathrop family tree after conservation
The Lathrop family tree after conservation. Courtesy R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, NEHGS

The original family tree, by the way, was “collected and arranged” by John Lathrop and the lithograph printed in Buffalo, New York, in 1876.  Because the Lathrop name is a familiar one to people with New England roots, the New England Historic Genealogical Society has made available copies of the original 19” x 29” piece. Our 12”x 18” copies may be purchased by calling 1-888-296-3447 or by visiting the bookstore at NEHGS online at

About Deborah Rossi

Deborah Rossi is the Conservation Technician at NEHGS. She is responsible for the conservation and repair of the Society's book and manuscript collections. Deborah received her training at the North Bennet Street School in Boston.

4 thoughts on “Conserving an historic family tree

  1. Hello, I have my family tree (Cranson). I have been searching for a way to preserve it. Is this one that you might be interested in? Of course I would have to check with my grandmother before I sent it to you. 😉

    1. Hello, Annette. Thank you very much for your comment and your kind offer. Yes, NEHGS is indeed interested in receiving family trees. Please send details about this tree to Judy Lucey, our Archivist, at, and she will advise you.

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