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Behind the Scenes in Conservation: Shoes with the Blues

by Obie Linn, Conservator of Textiles


CAMConservation , textile conservation , museum pests , silverfish , historic Cincinnati

This week in textile conservation, I’ve been working to improve the storage for part of our collection of ladies’ shoes from the early 1900s. These elegant pale blue kid leather shoes came to the lab for a new storage tray and interior padding, but they are interesting because they bear tell-tale damage from a specific collection pest: silverfish (Lepisma saccharinum). The damage is old and there is no reason to be concerned about a current infestation of silverfish. (We keep a pretty tight watch on the collection for that kind of activity!) But these shoes have definitely encountered silverfish in the past.

Silverfish damage is identifiable by a distinctive pattern of shallow, discrete impressions over a surface (see photo) sometimes as penetrating holes in thin material. They may leave sort of a lacy pattern. Here, the silverfish have clearly grazed over the surface of the leather, eating the blue finished surface but stopping when they got to tougher layers beneath. There isn’t much we can do to fix this damage (and the front of the shoes are mostly untouched), so prevention is very important.

Conservators wear a lot hats, including “Museum Entomologist”! We need to recognize insects and their distinctive work (like this grazing pattern) and know how to respond. If I did suspect an active infestation (or if you suspect one in your home!), one of the best interventions is to freeze the object(s) in question in two cycles: a week in the freezer, a thorough thaw, then another week in the freezer.