Uncovering the silver—and gold—lining of a Tiffany-embellished bicycle

By Caitlin Kearney
Photo of bicycle

An 1896 women's safety bicycle, currently on view in the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Projecthas proven to be one of the museum's more glamorous but mysterious objects. I spoke with conservator Diana Galante, who cleaned and restored the intricately ornamented bicycle over the course of 200 hours. She uncovered some interesting physical clues about the object that may lead to future research. This blog is the first part of a series that explores of the bicycle's history; the second installment will be a Q&A with road transportation curator Roger White, who is delving into the story behind its owner, how she may have used it, and how it came to be at the museum.

A Tiffany-embellished Columbia bicycle

Diana, before we get started on this really interesting (and shiny) bicycle, could you tell me a little about what your job as a conservator entails?

Conservation includes the preservation, restoration, and technical study of artifacts. I am an objects conservator, which means that I treat three-dimensional art and artifacts. Objects conservation can cover pretty much anything that's not paper, textiles, or paintings, but there's overlap between the specialties.

Conservator Diana Galante at work in the Objects Lab

I work on metals, organic materials, plastic, ceramics, glass, stone, and mixed media. I have studied art history, fine arts, history and chemistry, and trained through graduate study, self-driven exploration, and apprenticeships.

So, this bicycle that's currently on display in the Taylor Foundation Object Project—what were your first impressions when it came into the lab?

We had several people in the Objects Lab working on exhibits for the new innovation wing that opened on July 1, and we rotated choosing which objects we wanted to work on. I saw the bicycle come in and said, "I want that one!" Even though it needed a lot of treatment, I could tell it was going to be an artifact that really packed a punch.

Based on initial research, we know this is an 1896 women's safety bicycle that was manufactured by Columbia with decorations added by Tiffany & Co. It was owned by a woman named Mary Noble Wiley of Montgomery, Alabama. What sort of background information did you have before you started working on the bicycle?

I talked to the curator responsible for this object, Roger White, in advance. The bicycle was donated to the museum in 1950 by the son of Mrs. Wiley. Recently, a letter that the son wrote in 1930 came to light, and the curator shared it with me. Mrs. Wiley's son had written to Tiffany & Co. asking them for more information about the bicycle. For us, that letter helped summarize what he knew—or thought he knew—about the bicycle, and the questions that remained. The curator focuses on researching the documented and oral history of the bicycle, while I look to the physical object for clues. Those pieces of information work together, and Roger and I learned from each other during this project.

What does your observation involve? What are the initial steps?

First, as with every conservation treatment, I document what I know about an artifact through observation, research, and scientific analysis. I photograph the artifact and write a condition report that details the current states of the structure and surface.

The bicycle lamp before (left) and after (right) conservation

From first glance, I could tell the bicycle had corrosion as well as dust and grime. When it arrived in the lab, it had been in storage for many years and it had some condition issues that distracted from its luxurious composition. The gilt silver had been polished regularly during its years in use, and over time the gilding had been partially abraded to reveal the silver below. Silver reacts with sulfur and moisture in the air to tarnish, and this covered some of the gilt surface. It's a process that is not unexpected, especially near the rubber tires that contain sulfur. The rubber was distorted and cracked over time due to its self-degradation process that was practically inevitable.

Detail of the bicycle handle and bell

It was clear to me that this object was supposed to be bright and shiny—I mean, it was so elaborately embellished by Tiffany. It was like the Rolls Royce of bicycles, meant to distinguish its owner from all the other women on their run-of-the-mill bicycles. There are intricate gilt sterling silver plaques, ivory handles, bird's eye maple wheel rims, and diamonds and emeralds in Mrs. Wiley's gold monogram on the front. I love the beautifully woven twine over the chain guard and from the back fender to the wheel hub, safety mechanisms to prevent the rider's skirt from catching.

During my exploration of the object, I used an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to do elemental analysis. It's nondestructive; you hold the instrument to the surface and a spectrum is produced. Like a fingerprint, there are distinct peaks in the spectrum for each element. So, through that process, I determined that the bicycle frame is nickel-plated steel and the decorative elements were cast in silver that is covered in a thin layer of gold.

How did you come up with a plan for treating the bicycle?

As a conservator, I always think about the fact that after something is treated, the artifact is changed. Most of the time it's for the better, but there's always a chance that the outcome won't be what you hoped or expected. First, I did a general cleaning to remove dust and dirt and aged wax. Beneath that, there was still corrosion—which I use to describe any sort of oxidation to the metal, including silver tarnish. I polished a test area for the curator to see what it would look like when I reduced the corrosion, using gentle abrasives. I always start out with a cleaning agent that I predict will do the least amount of work, instead of starting with a powerful chemical that can rush through the process with little control. I showed the curator a little flower that I test-treated and talked to him about what I anticipated for the outcome for the bicycle as a whole. We realized it actually could look really spectacular.

I'm intrigued by the decorations and the level of detail, and so is pretty much everyone who sees the bicycle! What did you learn about them?

Detail of bicycle front with lamp and bejeweled monogram

There are different motifs at different locations on the bicycle. There are rosettes and other organic Art Nouveau-inspired motifs repeated throughout the frame, and then the handlebars have a very different motif—dogwood flowers with leaves. After the bicycle was polished, the gilded sections were coated with a resin to protect them from getting tarnished while on exhibition.

Where did the bicycle go next, after the conservation treatment?

It was sent to the museum photographer for its glamour shots, to show the object in its best light for publication or use on the web. I also photographed it, but in a way that's more like your middle school yearbook photo. Your acne is out there, and I need to see that.

The bicycle seat before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

I documented every step of the treatment to record the "before" and "after" and see how it has changed. Then it went to the mount maker who created a structure to suspend the bicycle above the floor so the aged rubber wheels wouldn't have more strain.

What's something you want visitors to think about while looking at the bicycle?

The way this piece was initially made, it would have been like a diamond necklace. It would completely dazzle, with every point of the gilding reflecting light. If the owner went out on a sunny day, you saw that bicycle. You have to have a bit of imagination about that now that it is confined to its exhibit case. Something that I love about historical objects in this museum is that you can think about actual people using them. You just have to think, she rode this, probably wearing a full skirt and fancy hat. She was stylin'.

Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant for the Taylor Foundation Object Project. She is a student in the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University. Previously, she has blogged about the magic scrapbook also on display.