More than 40 years ago, my father gave me the Young Family Bible. It had been given to him by his father, who’d received it from his father. The value of the book, as experts like to say, was “intrinsic,” In other words, it was zero, except for what a family member would believe.
The book as received from my father was wrapped in brown grocery-bag paper and tied with twine. It has sat on a closet shelf in my parents’ house for a long time, probably since they moved there in 1955. I have very vague memories of it from childhood.
When my father gave it to me, I did the time-honored thing: I put it on a closet shelf. Eventually, I removed the wrapping and twine and wrapped it in acid-free paper and a box. Its value to me and the rest of the family was what it contained – four pages, inserted between the Old and New Testaments, of family births, marriages, and deaths. The earliest date was that of my great-great grandfather’s birth in 1802; the last date was in 1890. All of the events were written in the same hand – my great-grandfather’s Samuel Franklin Young. He also wrote his signature on an inside cover.
The Bible was not in good shape. The leather binding had failed. The leather was gone from the corners of the cover, exposing the frayed and decaying “boards” underneath. The sewing of the sections had failed. Spine folds were damaged. The family pages were damaged. The title page had disappeared. And there was evidence (prior to my possession) (I hope) of damage from insects, mold, and possibly rodents.
The questions were: Could it be restored? Could we at least save the family record pages? And could I afford it?
My wife found a story in St. Louis Magazine about NS Conservation. It’s owned by Noah Smutz, and it focuses on book conservation and related services in St. Louis and the American Midwest. Noah is the real deal, and it was a real find to discover that he lived and worked right here in St. Louis, about 20 minutes from my house.
Noah became interested in book conservation when he was a student worker at the University of Kansas Libraries. He did internships with the Smithsonian Archives and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He received a Masters degree in book conservation from West Dean College in the United Kingdom. And he’s worked with the St. Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, the Missouri Historical Society. Saint Louis University, and the Smithsonian Libraries.
If anyone could do something with the Young Family Bible, it was Noah.
Last March, I took the book to Noah for an assessment. He looked over it carefully. What was encouraging was that he didn’t reject it out of hand as impossible. As he went through the book, he found something that I’d never come across before – a lock of auburn hair. My best guess is that it probably belonged to my great-grandmother, Octavia Montgomery Young. She died more than 30 years before my grandfather did and, uncommon for the time, he never remarried.
He told me what he needed to do, and he told me what he wouldn’t do, which was to restore every single page of the Bible. The cost would have been prohibitive. But he spelled out what he would do and named his price, which I thought more than fair for the work he’d be doing. His initial assessment fee ($125) applied to the overall price he’d be charging.
He also said he wouldn’t have it finished until about October. The COVID pandemic seemed to have prompted a lot of people to become interested in restoring family books, Bibles, and similar heirlooms. I was more than happy with his schedule.
He also said the Bible, using the King James Version text, was likely printed in the late 1860s or early 1870s. Tens of thousands of Bibles like this were printed and typically sold by door-to-door salesmen.
Noah actually finished the work in late August. I knew we were getting close when I saw him post a few pictures on Instagram (nsconservation). What he did was amazing. It’s a bound book again. The family pages and the signature page have protected with Japanese paper. The leather cover was repaired and replaced where needed. The book was restitched; the signature page was placed where it originally belonged, at the back of the Bible (he matched the inkblots). He did a bit more work, and he constructed an acid-free storage box that fits it perfectly.
I’ve had time to think about this Bible and my great-grandfather. The approximate date of the book fits something else that happened in the family. His father died in 1870 (his mother had died some years before). Because of deaths in the Civil War (he lost two older brothers and a brother-in-law), he was the youngest and only surviving son. At 23 or 24 years old, he became head of the family, which included not only his young wife the firstborn child but also including two sisters-in-law, his sister, and their children. And he would have bought a family Bible with its record section because, like tens of thousands of other families in both North and South, the dead from the war needed to be remembered and memorialized, even if it was no more than writing their names in a family Bible.
What Noah restored was more than a book. It was also a piece of family history and American history. With the publication date, the family records and the lock of hair, the book has the Biblical story to tell as well as its own.