Two Original Pitt Charters to Be Displayed in Hillman Library

Issue Date: 
February 20, 2012
University Library System Associate Katrina Milbrodt scanning a page of the 1787 charter.University Library System Associate Katrina Milbrodt scanning a page of the 1787 charter.

Two original Pennsylvania charters—one dated Feb. 28, 1787, that led to the establishment of the progenitor of today’s University of Pittsburgh, The Pittsburgh Academy, in a small log house on the edge of the American frontier, and one dated Feb. 18, 1819, that rechartered the school as the Western University of Pennsylvania—will be on display beginning Feb. 27 in Pitt’s Hillman Library as part of the University’s 225th anniversary celebration.

This the first time that the original first pages of both charters will be exhibited in Pittsburgh; they will be shown in the Audubon display case near the library’s ground-floor elevators, and reproductions of all the charters’ pages will be mounted on the walls nearby. Those displays, and a related one in the Hillman Library’s ground-floor lobby, will be on view until May 18. (See Happenings, page 7.) The original four pages of the 1787 charter will also be on display 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. outside the William Pitt Union’s Assembly Room for the Feb. 24 meeting of the Pitt Board of Trustees.

The charters, somewhat torn and tattered when they arrived at Pitt, have been mended and cleaned by the University Library System (ULS) Department of Preservation.

It was Pitt Assistant University Librarian Michael Dabrishus who first wondered whether the Pennsylvania State Archives might house the old Pitt records. Recalling the official charters from other universities he had seen while employed as an archivist for the Texas State Archives, Dabrishus approached Linda Ries, head of the Arrangement and Description Section of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

“I checked the stacks, and I found them,” said Ries, who explained that prior to coming to the Archives in 1906, the documents were kept by the Pennsylvania State Department, the official keeper of all state laws created by the General Assembly when it was based in Philadelphia. Eventually, all laws passed prior to 1800 became the property of the State Archives. The October 1908 decree that ultimately changed the University’s name to University of Pittsburgh was merely a name change and didn’t involve the state.

This was the first-ever request for the Pitt charters, according to Ries, who said that she was especially pleased with the University’s offer to conserve the aged paper records.

“It’s a win-win situation,” she said. “Pitt gets to display these wonderful documents for its 225th anniversary celebration, and we get them cleaned up a bit before we return them to the Archives.”

Dabrishus drove to Harrisburg to retrieve the documents and delivered them to Pitt’s preservation department in Point Breeze, where professional conservator Csilla Crisanti, who was hired by ULS, used various hand tools to painstakingly conserve, and thereby prolong the life of, the precious paperwork.

The 1787 charter had been folded in thirds and was torn along the creases. Crisanti used a wheat starch paste to adhere strips of Japanese tissue paper to the back of the document. The acidic iron gall ink used in the 1700s had eaten through the paper in some areas, and there were slight tears and a small hole. Crisanti sprayed the document with a de-acidification solution that conserves the paper and leaves the ink undisturbed.

The 1819 charter was in much better condition but had some small rips. Both documents were dry-cleaned to reduce soiling and staining, and they will be housed in special protective acid-free enclosures custom-made by Crisanti.

“This work is extremely delicate and must be handled by a professional conservator with a background in chemistry and materials science,” explained Jeanann Haas, head of ULS’s Special Collections and Preservation. She added that it took a full week to complete work on the earlier charter. The content of both charters is available at the ULS Documenting Pitt Web site,

Dabrishus said the charters will help demonstrate to the public how very far the University of Pittsburgh has come from its modest beginnings. He also was struck by the fact that the Pittsburgh Academy charter and the U.S. Constitution were not only written in the same year—1787—but in the same city, Philadelphia.

“A new nation and a new school developed from the minds of people who had much higher ambitions and expectations,” he said. “And I’d say both are pretty successful stories.”