Special Collections & Archives (SCA) recently sponsored a visit from textile conservator Claudia Walpole, who reviewed a historic banner, which was tentatively identified as belonging to the Philomathesian Literary Society of Wake Forest College. The banner was painted on silk and is rapidly deteriorating. The banner was named an Endangered Artifact for the State of North Carolina by the North Carolina Preservation Consortium.

The Philomathesian Society was one of two literary groups that began at Wake Forest in 1835 (the Euzelians being the other). For much of the 1800s, these societies challenged young farmers and ministerial students to study and debate historical, political, and philosophical questions of the day. In addition to intellectual stimulation, the societies gave the members a sense of fellowship and belonging. With formal education at Wake Forest still in its infancy, the societies emerged to slake “a thirst for intellectualism unquenched in the classroom,” wrote Timothy Joseph Williams in his history honors thesis.1 For a century, the societies guided students’ intellectual, moral and social development, and heavily influenced campus life, from governing student behavior to selecting Commencement speakers. The societies met weekly in separate ornate halls decorated with expensive carpets and draperies and portraits of distinguished alumni members. Each society stocked its bookshelves with periodicals and history and reference books. The society libraries merged to form the College library in the 1880s.

During her visit, Walpole unwrapped and unfolded the fragile textile. She also discovered new information about its creation, including the fact it was created in 1857 and signed by African-American artist, David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900). During the Civil War, Bowser also created banners for several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. The Clio Society at the Oxford Female Seminary (a now-defunct sister institution to Wake Forest) purchased the banner for the Philomathesian Society.

At the end of the conservation visit, the banner was surrounded and supported by acid-free tissue, muslin and foam padding. Then it was enclosed in an acid-free box. It is now stored flat in SCA oversized storage. Walpole also made recommendations for any future conservation and repair work, should funding ever become available.

To obtain a copy of the report, please contact SCA Director Tanya Zanish-Belcher.

Read more about the banner in Wake Forest Magazine.

1 Williams, Timothy Joseph. “Literary societies at Wake Forest College.” BA honors thesis. Wake Forest U. 2002.