Unveiling the Caramelo Deportivo through conservation

By Verónica Mercado Oliveras
Conservator sews linen thread along the spine of the Caramelo Deportivo album

In preparation for an exhibition, all objects undergo a thorough assessment of their condition. Conservators determine whether the objects require stabilization treatment and recommend environmental conditions and mounts so that pieces from our collection can be safely displayed. Conservators play a special role at the Smithsonian, repairing and preserving our national treasures so they can be enjoyed for generations. But some objects require more treatment than others.

Four two-page spreads from Caramelo Deportivo baseball card album, separated and laid flat on a table in the museum's conservation lab
 The "Caramelo Deportivo" album was disassembled during the conservation process in the museum's Book and Paper Lab. (2016.0369.04)

That was the case for Caramelo Deportivo, a 15-page album on newsprint paper bound with staples in 1940s Havana, Cuba. With vibrantly colorful covers and 100 newsprint baseball cards glued across several pages, this album arrived at the museum’s paper conservation laboratory in poor condition. The paper and covers were fragile, and rusty staples had caused tearing and corrosion in the centerfold, which led to the partial detachment of the covers. This “inherent vice,” or damage and degradation over the years, was the result of delicate materials combined with a lifetime of regular, enthusiastic use, and non-museum level handling.

Diagram showing the cover of the Caramelo Deportivo album, with colors added to diagram where conservators would mend or in-fill the album with tissue
Conservators used diagrams like this to plan their work and determine which parts of an album should be mended or filled in with tissue.

The exhibition team wanted to display the Caramelo Deportivo open. Working under a stereomicroscope, conservators carefully took the album apart, removing the rusty staples with the aid of dental pics and two micro spatulas. After disassembling the album, conservators cleaned rust off the pages' centerfolds , and gently dry-cleaned and flattened the paper. Areas where paper had worn away or torn were mended with Tosa Tengujo and Sekishu—two kinds of Japanese tissue paper made from Kozo fibers (extracted from the inner bark of mulberry trees) and used by conservators to mend tears and in-fill losses. Both tissues were colored in separate baths of Golden Acrylic paints diluted in water and were selected to closely match the thickness, strength, color, and texture of the original paper.

Left: rusty staples magnified under a microscope. Right: a conservator sews linen thread along the spine of the Caramelo Deportivo album
After removing rusty staples from the album, conservators sewed linen thread through the original staple holes and locally toned the exposed thread to match the covers.

Conservators then re-assembled the album, sewing linen thread through the original staple holes, now repaired to prevent future rust damage to the centerfolds. A custom-made storage box was designed for the album, and the original staples were secured in a polyethylene bag. The treatment began and concluded with documentation, high-resolution photography, and written reports noting the treatment materials and techniques used. It took over 40 hours of work to complete the full treatment.

Cover of the Caramelo Deportivo baseball card album, after conservation. The cover is decorated with illustrations of player and related baseball ephemera
The entire album was rephotographed by Verónica Mercado at the end of the museum's conservation work.

Whenever possible, conservators dive into research about precious collections in the museum’s care. They need to understand more than just the material weaknesses to determine the best conservation treatment plan for artifacts. While working as a technician in the museum’s conservation lab, I translated the album cover’s editorial notes from Spanish, researched provenance information to recreate the artifact’s narrative history, and performed its conservation treatment. Through this process, I helped the museum unveil the Caramelo Deportivo’s history—including the ways that the album paid homage to both the African American players and Cuban players who participated in the Professional Winter League Baseball Championship of 1945-46. The album gave Cuban baseball fans a means to celebrate and immortalize these players in the form of tangible heritage. During World War II, an era of rampant racism in the United States, this 5 cent Cuban baseball album implicitly praised equality by celebrating the 100 baseball players pictured inside, regardless of their skin color or nationality. Whether they were African American or Cuban, these men were lauded for a common skill and passion: baseball.

Read on to learn more about the cultural significance of baseball in Cuba and how the players featured in this album blurred the sport’s color line. The Carmelo Deportivo album is featured in the exhibition ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas.

¡Pleibol! received generous support from the Cordoba Corporation and Linda Alvarado, and federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Verónica Mercado Oliveras is a former intern and conservation technician in the museum’s conservation lab and currently a LACE Fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.