The sealskin mittens that protected Matthew Henson, the first African-American to stand on top of the world, have had quite a journey of their own over the past 110 years. Like their original owner, the mittens have traversed the globe from the North Pole to their current address at New York City’s famed Explorers Club where Henson donated them. Yet, the harse conditions the gloves have experienced over the past century required a preservation intervention.
Thus, the mittens took another trip to the labortory of the University of Delaware’s Caitlin Richeson, a student in the Program in Art Conservation, directed by Debra Hess Norris, the Unidel Henry Francis du Point Chair in Fine Arts.
“I said, ‘Debbie, I need this!’ And it became a project that followed me through the two years I was in residence at Winterthur,” Richeson said to UDaily. “For nearly two years, Richeson committed to the painstaking work restore the matted, rigidly creased and brittle mittens that had also been compromised by insects.
“She documented them and got to do a very thorough examination of them during her first year of study in the program, as part of the organic materials section of that curriculum,” explained Norris. “These are perfect for that, because they have all sorts of very, very organic materials like the seal skin and the polar bear fur. She got to look at them and learn more about their story, document and photograph them and look at their condition issues. In her second year, she proposed the treatment proposal and the treatment itself. I feel like we had a very successful result — and the people at the Explorers Club felt the same way, too.”
Richeson wanted to focus on Henson’s mittens because she had studied the adventurers legacy while growing up in his Maryland home state. Born in Nanjemoy, Maryland in 1866, Henson was orphaned as a child and found his way to Baltimore where he trained as a ship’s cabin boy. While working as a hat store clerk in Washington, D.C. he encountered explorer Robert Peary (1856- 1920) who hired the budding seaman to accompany him on a expedition to South America. Henson would go on to work with Peary for the next 20 years on seven Arctic expeditions, and on April 6, 1909 became the first Black man to reach the North Pole. While the resourceful Henson learned the Inuit language and implemented survival skills enable the continuned travels of his hobbled partner — who had lost nine of his 10 toes to frostbite on one expedition.
While there has been ongoing debate over who reached the North Pole first, there is no question that Henson was there while wearing the sealskin mittens to ward off temperatures that were 50 or more degrees below zero. In 1910, Henson wrote in his memoir, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole” that “Freezing of the nose and the whole front of the face is an ordinary occurrence. The skin keeps peeling off and freezing again until that part of the face is like raw beef and it leaves spots on the face like smallpox.”
When the duo returned to America, Peary was hailed as an Arctic adventurer and Henson returned to being a sales clerk. Eventually, Peary’s “first man” would receive the recognition he deserved. In 1934, he gave The Explorers Club his trusty mittens, and in 1937, Henson became the first African American awarded a life membership and was later elevated to the club’s highest level of membership. In 1944, Henson was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, and he was welcomed to the White House by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. After his death at age 88 in 1955, Henson’s contributions were honored by with a U.S. Postal Stamp and reinterment at Arlington National Cemetery. The National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Henson the Hubbard Medal almost a century after his expeditions.
In the next few months, the historic mittens will return to their home in NYC.
“It was a real honor to have the the glove under our care care for the time that we’ve had them,” said Norris. “We are happy to be able to share these diverse stories, and we need to take these underrepresented stories, these sections of history, and find ways to make them more public. We’re very dedicated to that process. It’s something that we’ve been trying to emphasize in recent years, and hope to do more than the future.”