How the Smithsonian Conserved the Jefferson Bible

Thomas Jefferson cut and arranged selected Bible verses to create a chronological, edited story of Jesus’ life—and the conservation treatment was just as painstaking

Jefferson Bible.jpg
The title page of the Jefferson Bible, written in Jefferson's hand, reads: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English. NMNH

When Thomas Jefferson's great-granddaughter, Carolina Randolph, sold The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth to Smithsonian Institution librarian Cyrus Adler in 1895, he had a plan for it. Miss Randolph and her family had kept this book out of the public eye for more than sixty-five years after Jefferson's death, but the time had come to let it be seen. She chose to entrust this closely held family treasure, Jefferson's "little volume," to a national venue, where it became a national treasure.

In 1904 the Government Printing Office had black-and-white photographs made of each page in order to publish a photolithographic facsimile edition of the book. These photographs now serve as the first documentation of the physical condition of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, eighty-four years after Jefferson made it. They reveal that, by 1904, the pages had already begun to tear at the edges from handling and use. Several page openings, including those at pages 38 and 77, were severely darkened, probably from exposure to natural light, gaslight, and their pollutants while the artifact was on display. Over the next hundred years, following the emerging profession of artifact conservation, the Smithsonian Institution reduced the public display of the book, limiting its access to protect it from the ordinary attrition of age and use, but time worsened its condition nonetheless. Eventually the museum considered it too fragile for exhibition and limited even scholarly access. Once again, Jefferson's volume became an inaccessible treasure.

In 2009 the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH) committed to making The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth accessible again and embarked upon conserving and scanning the book's individual pages. Four NMAH conservators assembled to preserve Jefferson's Bible. The Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Insti-tute, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and numerous consultants from the National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, Winterthur/Univer-sity of Delaware, University of Virginia, and others provided additional expertise. Conservation scientists tested the materials. Scholars and conservators provided historical, bibliographic, and treatment insight. In order to meet the museum's priority of exhibition and scholarly use, conservators needed to make the artifact usable again without causing further damage. To achieve this result, they needed to define the artifact's condition, determine its chemical and physical instability, implement a conservation treatment to stabilize it, produce a preservation scan, and create a baseline from which future conservators could monitor its condition over time.

The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is an exact facsimile reproduction based on the original copy in the Smithsonian collections. The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is as beautiful an object as was so painstakingly crafted by Thomas Jefferson himself.

Preparing the book for conservation treatment and exhibition was a painstaking process. And Jefferson's creation is no ordinary book. Unlike other early nineteenth-century books, it was not printed by a single printer on one type of paper and brought to a bookbinder to be bound. It is more like a scrapbook. Created by Jefferson's own hand sometime between 1819 and 1820, it was made up from multiple clippings removed from other printed Bibles and glued to the front and back of each leaf in forty-three paper folios. These clippings were arranged so densely that, at first glance, each page resembles a single imprint. A close examination reveals the seventy-seven-year-old Jefferson's mental and physical skills: a practical demonstration of his meticulous hand-work, his tidiness and planning, his strategic and near-surgical approach to "extracting" clippings from his source books, and his careful attention to detail.

To make The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson purchased two copies each of three New Testament translations. The Greek and Latin translations are printed together in Wingrave's 1794 London edition of Leusden's Greek Testament; the English translation is from Jacob Johnson's Philadelphia 1804 edition of the King James New Testament; and the French is from Ostervald's Paris 1802 edition of the New Testament. He needed two copies of each so that he could cut passages from the fronts and backs of pages.

He purchased blank paper, most likely "royal" size, which measured 19 by 24 inches. Each royal sheet was cut down into six pieces measuring 9½ by 8 inches. These were folded in half to produce pages measuring 8 inches tall by 4¾ inches wide. Jefferson drew a center-divide ruling line on the front and back of each page. He made tiny pencil hatch marks on these ruling lines to indicate the upper margins of the pages. (On page 7, just above the pencil mark, a single curly reddish hair protrudes from beneath the upper left corner of verse 15. Then he carefully glued the New Testament cutouts onto his blank paper beginning at the pencil mark. He arranged the text on either side of the ruling line in two vertical columns per page, so that on each double-page spread one can read the same text in four columns: Greek and Latin on the left-hand page; French and English on the right. He handwrote page numbers and notes in the margins and made corrections to his mistakes or the publishers' when needed. For example, he added an omitted verse to the English margin on page 40 and corrected a translation error by changing the word
"out" to "up" on an English verse on page 5, Luke 6:12. On page 64 he edited Matthew 24:38 by cutting out the word "as" in the verse that begins "For as in the days," revealing an intellectual focus as sharp as the knife he used to remove the offending word Page 22 reveals that, just above Matthew 13, Jefterson had accidentally cut off text at the far right edge of a clip-ping. But he then aligned and glued a replacement fragment in place with such precision that only the darkening caused by the extra adhesive under the fragment gives the mistake away.

Using iron-gall ink mixed at home from commercially available ink powders, he wrote abbreviations in the margins to indicate the gospel and chapter number: a cross stroke on the letter "M" indicated "Mt" for Matthew, "Mk" for Mark, and "L" and "J" for Luke and John. He frequently started the quill stroke for each diminutive initial capital in the center of the letter, leaving a small tail in the middle of each, before moving his quill to the ascending stroke.

Rather than send the completed forty-three folios to his favorite bookbinder, Joseph Milligan, who was in the twilight of his career, Jefferson sent them to a new bookbinder in Richmond: Frederick August Mayo. Two years earlier, on November 30, 1818, Jefferson wrote in his first letter to Mayo that "I am particular in my bindings and have hitherto been obliged to send my choice books to Milligan in Georgetown because I have found no workman in America but him who can give me such as the London and Paris bindings, besides the good taste with which he works. [A] book bound by him is as heavy as a piece of metal while the common bindings of this country are so spongy, that after a book has been opened, it will never shut close again." Mayo obliged with a binding that held the pages firmly immobile.

To bind it to Jefferson's liking, Mayo compensated the folds of the folios with extra paper stubs that increased the spine's bulk to equal that of the center of the page where Jefferson had glued the clippings. Mayo then added end leaves and Stormont pattern marbled flyleaves and sewed them together on four sewing supports, three folios at a time, to create a text block. He sewed pale blue- and rose-colored silk endbands to the head and tail, lined the spine with layers of heavyweight paper, and laced-on the front and back boards. He covered the book "tight back," gluing the leather directly to the spine linings, using full-leather, straight-grain red morocco, a goat skin laboriously steeped, slaked, pounded, stretched, and processed for more than sixty days and tanne with sumac. It was the finest-quality, most expensive leather available. He embellished the leather binding with gold tooling on the covers, spine, board edges, and turn-ins, and placed his binder's ticket on the inside of the front cover.

Jefferson wrote a separate, two-page index listing all the passages in the entire book. At some later point, the index was glued inside the book between the front cover and the marble flyleaf.

Nearly two centuries later, the original Mayo binding remained intact. But exposure to oxygen, humidity, and light had caused the Jefferson Bible's paper to become rigid. The glue Jefferson had used to adhere the clippings had hardened (it contains both starch and protein). The paper became inflexible and brittle from the glue's acidity. Humidity caused the paper to become distorted, and it had cracked at the hills and valleys. Mayo's binding also damaged Jefferson's paper. The robustly lined tight-back spine could barely flex. As the book was opened, the paper just beyond the stubs became the hinging point rather than the spine. When the paper became brittle with age, the stubs caused the forty-three folios to break. Opening the book wider than thirty degrees caused damage because neither the paper nor the binding had enough remaining flexibility.

To decide on a conservation treatment for the Jefferson Bible, conservators needed to understand all the risks and anticipate how to avoid them. With the Jefferson Bible, this was a complex task, because it is made from many different types of materials that affect the physical and chemical stability of each other and the whole. There are twelve different papers (the blank folio paper; six source book papers; maps; end leaves; stubs; marbled paper; and the index). Two types of adhesive were used to glue the clippings on the paper (starch and animal glue). There are seven printing inks (six source books and maps). At least four different iron-gall inks are included (ruling lines, page numbers, marginalia, and for the index). These inks were made from different proportions of the most common ingredients ("vitriol" iron sulfate, oak galls, water, and gum arabic) from recipe to recipe or from batch to batch. The resulting aging characteristics, chemical stability, and solubility of the inks vary considerably.

With so many materials, often a solution to one problem would exacerbate another. For this reason, aqueous (water) treatment of the paper was ruled out. Nonaqueous alka-lization solutions, commonly used to buffer acidic paper, would not have addressed the chemical needs of the other materials such as the iron-gall inks, and they were also ruled out. Ultimately, the complexity of the materials was too great for every type of chemical conservation treatment considered.

Fold-out tab added by Jefferson to the margin of page 56. Jefferson must have forgotten to paste Mark 11:27 down, and subsequently adhered the clipping to the side of the vertical text.

Conservation also required layers of decision making beyond simply identifying materials. For example, when investigating all the iron-gall inks in the volume, the conservators questioned where one recipe or batch ended and another began. The conservators needed to determine the most useful locations for analytical tests when iron-gall inks, paper, and adhesives varied significantly over one hundred pages. They observed that Jefferson had used a draftsman's tool called a divider to gently score the ruling lines on the pages before inking them. They debated whether the weakness in the center of each ruled page resulted from the physical damage made by the draftsman's tool, chemical damage from the acidic iron-gall ink eating into the paper, or the combination of both.

Even the proposed change of Frederick Mayo's bookbinding needed special consideration. Hannah French, a noted scholar of bookbinding history, described the binding as a masterpiece in her 1986 book, Bookbinding in Early America. Museum curators questioned how to maintain the integrity of the original craftsman bookbinder's masterpiece while addressing the needs of the Jefferson document bound inside.

The most compelling need of The Life and Morals of Fesus of Nazareth was repairing the physical damage that the binding structure had caused to the brittle paper.
Without addressing the binding, the artifact would remain too fragile to ever use again. Ninety-eight percent of the book pages had either cracked or been partially torn by the stubs. The book was disbound to improve the flexibility of the Mayo binding and change the stub design. Although the original stubbed binding design had served the text block well enough when the book's paper was young and flexible, it did not serve the old, stiff paper.

To remedy the tight binding, conservators first took the book apart, keeping the leather cover intact but separating it from the bound text block, removing the restrictive spine linings beneath and snipping the sewing inside the pages so that they could be separated once again into forty-three loose folios. Every scrap removed from the original binding was saved for future research. The disbound pages were dry-cleaned and physically repaired using Tosa tengujo Japanese paper, Berlin tissue, and a reversible adhesive. The repaired pages were digitally photographed using a Hasselblad H4D-50 50 megapixel DSLR camera and a Zeiss 120 macro lens, producing the first complete color images ever taken of the artifact. The folios were resewn not with the original stubs, which were numbered and saved, but with new, more flexible paper. The text block was resewn through the original sewing holes, using unbleached linen thread in an unsupported sewing stitch sewn through a linen spine lining material. The original silk endbands were sewn back in place, and the original red morocco covers and spine were reused. The resulting treatment provided the book with the needed flexibility while using materials and techniques sympathetic with the original artifact.

To address the chemical stabilization of the volume, the conservation treatment plan also included the design and manufacture of a long-term protective enclosure, Organic materials such as paper and leather degrade fastest when exposed to light, oxygen, and moisture. The protective enclosure reduces the book's exposure to these hazards as well as environmental fluctuations and pollutants.

In 2011, with the conservation treatment of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth completed, the National Museum of American History once again is able to present Carolina Randolph's gift to a wide audience, through exhibitions, Smithsonian Books' facsimile reproduction, and digital images. The preservation project not only has made the volume more accessible but also provided new insights into how it was constructed and, through materials analysis, provided a baseline description of the book's physical and chemical state, thereby enabling future conservators to monitor its condition with accuracy. For the first time, scholars and the general public alike can access this treasure in intimate detail. Jefferson's little volume is now simultaneously safely accessible to everyone and safely preserved at the Smithsonian.

The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt from The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition by Janice Stagnitto Ellis © 2011 by Smithsonian Institution