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Tracking, Polishing, Repairing: Behind the Scenes of Christmas at Biltmore

Posted on 11/14/2016 by Amy Dangelico Comments(8)

To say that decorating for Christmas at Biltmore is an enormous task would be an understatement. Of course, the amount of décor brought into the house is staggering, but have you ever wondered how exactly we make room for all of it?

That’s where Meg Schloemer of our collections team comes in. Meg is responsible for tracking every item moved in the house for the holidays. She was only about halfway through the process when we visited her, but we estimate her to have tracked more than 300 items by the end.Meg Schloemer

Some of the items are put into storage for the season. Others—like the Banquet Hall silverware set, for instance—are taken to our objects lab, where conservators preserve and repair pieces in the Biltmore collection.

“Biltmore House is a conservation anomaly,” explains objects conservator Renee Jolly. “Unlike traditional museums, our environment is not controlled and our displays are generally on-going, which can be tough on the collection.”

The Banquet Hall Silverware Set

As the Banquet Hall silverware set arrives in the objects lab, Renee first surveys the condition of each piece in the set, checking for discoloration and tarnishing. If you look closely at the salt cellar pictured below, you can see a small, darkened mark where the miniature spoon has scratched the protective lacquer coating and tarnished the dish.

As typical silver cleaners can contain damaging chemicals, Renee polishes the set with chalk, a basic calcium carbonate mixture, and cotton swabs.

The Candelabra from Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom

Renee is also in the process of repairing and treating a candelabra set from Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom.

A damaged decorative arm on one of the pieces is being repaired and reattached. The gold components of the pieces are cleaned—not polished, as that can actually remove the gold—with a gentle gold-specific solution.

The ceramic parts of the pieces are cleaned with human saliva. (Yes, you read that right.)

“The natural enzymes of saliva are nature’s gentle solution for breaking down solids without damaging the surface,” explains Renee. Artificial alternatives are available but don’t work as well, and commercial cleaners are often too concentrated and corrosive.

It seems that while there are some advancements in conservation methods, it is often best to keep it simple.

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Posted on 01/07/2017 By David S

About your statement using saliva. I once worked for a custom millwork shop in Chicago installing. We were on a job installing white lacquer window sills in a commercial building. People would put there coffee cups on the sills and leave stairs that the touchup man could not get off with his normal solutions. I stuck my finger in my mouth and removed some with my saliva. He couldn't believe it.

Posted on 01/07/2017 By Ann R

I just have to know where the spit comes from? Do you spit as you clean or have a container of spit that someone makes? This is so interesting. My first job was working in Landscaping and we had to use human fertilizer so the spit thing is not too bad for me.

Posted on 12/09/2016 By Joan D

"The original Biltmore House flatware is not usually displayed for reasons of security." You must have it somewhere safe, of course, but I would love to see a picture of the pattern.

Posted on 12/05/2016 By Evelyn Z

Who is the Maker of the Silver and what is the pattern of silver? Is it Sterling plate? How many place settings? What was the usual arrangement at table i.e. Oyster fork in soup spoon fish course? Game course, entree course, well see what I mean, Thanks from a Gilded Age Etiquette Lover.

Hi Evelyn, The original silver flatware pattern for Biltmore House was a “Victorian silver, Old English pattern flatware” made by Frances Higgins, London, 1894, engraved “G. W. V.” in block. Other original flatware and serving pieces include dessert knives, forks and spoons, cheese knives, skewers, butter knives, salad spoons, coffee spoons, carving utensils, cake spades, fish servers, gravy spoons, marrow scoops, fish and cake slices, ladles, bread tongs, grape scissors, salt spoons and cheese scoops. The original Biltmore House flatware is not usually displayed for reasons of security. The Banquet Hall Silverware Set pictured in the recent blog post is sterling silver and is from ca. 1907. It was purchased for display purposes and is not original to the Vanderbilt’s collection. Regarding etiquette, here is an excerpt from an 1898 manual on table setting: “A napkin squarely folded and lying flat at each place, a row of forks at its left, oyster fork on the outside, then fork for fish, and a large and small ordinary fork, making four, are usually arranged for a simple dinner. At the right of the napkin are knives; a fish knife at the extreme right, a steel bladed large knife, and a silver bladed knife inside, making three. A soup spoon next to the napkin is all that is required in that line; it is laid squarely across the upper side of the place. Desert and ice spoons are brought in later, and so (usually) are salad forks and dessert forks. Silver knives for cutting meat are obsolete, thank heaven…there should be a small steel knife for game; always a silver knife for fish or fruit.”

Posted on 12/04/2016 By Kate S

If you run short of spit, high school wrestlers usually spit to lose weight to say in their class.... yup, hs boyfriend was a wrestler.

Posted on 11/18/2016 By Matt B

Well that explains the term spit shining and it's not just for boots! There's a lot that goes on behind the closed doors to keep all the archives in like new condition.

Posted on 11/17/2016 By Mary S

How cool is Meg! There are so many items to keep track of... 300 items with one change of season, wow!

Posted on 11/14/2016 By Ted G

You've begged the question...Exactly HOW and from WHOM do you collect enough saliva to clean the porcelain? Or is the cleaner just spitting as he/she goes along? FASCINATING!

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