John B. Cooper prepared to set sail in pursuit of sperm whales aboard the ship Franklin in August 1833. The voyage to the Pacific Ocean originated in Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Long Island. Like many sailors, Cooper kept a log of weather conditions, navigational calculations, and daily activities aboard ship. There are also several poems, essays, descriptions of ports visited, and lists of the total barrels of whale oil collected. The journal is filled with drawings of whales, their tails, and ships, indicating when the crew caught a whale, when one got away, and when another ship was spotted.
Cooper used his journal on at least two other expeditions. While we can only imagine the struggles crew members faced on these journeys, the notebook’s physical state brings to mind the difficult life aboard a whaling vessel. Its binding had fallen apart, the front board had become detached, and the back board was lost altogether. What remained of the binding covering–marbled paper and leather spine–showed severe battering. The sewing thread had broken and pages–many brittle and embedded with grime–had become loose. The deteriorated state of this artifact as it came to the New-York Historical Society bore witness to its long history.
Conservation treatment of such documents is often minimal, and focused on stabilization instead of full restoration. In the case of Cooper’s journal, our main concern was the deformed text block. The top portions of the pages were curled and nestled inside each other, preventing one from reading the contents with ease. We gently relaxed the distorted areas with water vapor and pressed them flat. After minor mending and sewing of the loose sections to the rest of the text block (we used new sewing thread and a paper cover that stand out clearly from the original materials), Cooper’s journal can now be easily consulted by researchers. With proper handling we hope it will survive another 180 years.
To learn more about whalers and the records of their adventures, be sure to read the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s “Introduction to Whaling Logbooks and Journals.”
This post is by Katarzyna Bator, Assistant Conservator.