For 124 years, the poster lay hidden behind a brick wall, its flimsy paper deteriorated “beyond brittle” but preserved enough that when a construction crew started tearing away the wall, the workers instantly realized this was something special.
That was June 2002. Now, six years later, we can all admire a billboard of a play staged by Buffalo Bill Cody in March 1878 at the Allen Opera House in Jamestown, New York.
The thanks for saving this valuable piece of history goes to a variety of groups and individuals—from the city’s Reg Lenna Civic Center to its Arts Council to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and a grant from the federal government—but the work of saving this treasure fell on the shoulders of a 39-year-old paper conservationist.
Laura Schell still sounds excited when she talks about the biggest project she’s ever tackled, and sometimes even she has to marvel at how it all came together.
“The day I arrived, it was raining, and the billboard was protected behind a tarp,” she recalls. Gingerly, corners of the tarp were lifted so she could get her first look, and that peek was all she had. “I never saw the whole thing, I just saw little parts. It was a lot like a huge jigsaw puzzle without knowing what was missing—we didn’t have any box top to show us the whole picture.”
Her work started with 17 boxes of fragments that had fallen off the wall and been lovingly collected by volunteers—pieces so flimsy the wind could whip them away. Many pieces still clung to the wall, its old glue long ago deteriorated. Although it all sounds like a mess, Schell says, “You could tell we would get something great.”
The giant poster—26 feet by 10 feet—advertised a play being performed in the adjoining theatre: panels of paper that were glued onto the wooden siding of the building, announcing that Buffalo Bill and his crew were presenting a play called May Cody, or Lost and Won, touted as “His New and Exciting Border Drama.” The border, of course, was the east-west border beyond the Mississippi River.
Fortunately, Buffalo Bill came to town while the theatre was under construction. After he left, the billboard was simply bricked over as construction continued.
Schell remembers carefully going through the pieces that had fallen off the wall: a piece with a horse; pieces with parts of the handlebar mustaches all the men wore; pieces of the red background; pieces of words. Schell’s job was to get the rest of it off the wall and put it all back together.
“Some of it was already gone, and what was left was very stained,” she recalls. “And remember, this was poor quality paper to start with. It wasn’t meant to last; it was ephemera. But everything is doable, and paper is surprisingly resilient.”
That is, if you know what you’re doing; and Schell did.
She stabilized the paper with methyl cellulose gel and Japanese tissue, and steamed it off. She then cleaned each piece on a “suction table” that misted water over the paper and sucked it out. “Old paper gets brittle, but this was beyond brittle,” she notes. “This paper didn’t break; it shattered.”
The original billboard had five panels—one was beyond repair, but Schell pieced the others back together, including an 8-foot-by-3.5-foot red mural depicting Buffalo Bill actor John Nelson.
Schell says she never dared think of the project as a 10,000-piece puzzle: “It would have been pretty easy to be overwhelmed with the wrong attitude. But it was like a victory when pieces
Work was often slow, both because the process couldn’t be rushed and because of funding. Various sources helped, including a 2004 federal grant from the “Save America’s Treasures” program. Schell finished the restoration in 2007, in time for an unveiling last June.
“This billboard is important for a lot of reasons,” she says. “A lot of time historians would hurry over the Buffalo Bill Combination to get to his Wild West shows. But he was touring with the combination [a troupe of performers] from 1872 to 1882. It’s a period that is under-documented, and this billboard is one of the earliest and rarest and largest Buffalo Bill items known.”
“The work Laura did was astounding,” says Juti Winchester of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. The billboard is “an example of advertising used in the East to give a vision of the West. What’s really precious is that it was taken off the wall and then reinstalled in the same spot the play was performed in 1878. Historical integrity doesn’t get any better than that.”