Care and Preservation of A-2 Flight Jackets

From the introduction of the A-2 in the early 1930’s to the completion of the last wartime contract, approximately 700,0001 of these flight jackets were ordered by the U.S. Army.   How many of those survived the war is of course something that we can only speculate.  As a very utilitarian and fashionable garment, the venerable A-2 been subject to attrition through continued use long after the war ended.  My father once remarked that when he attended college in the 1950’s at Western Illinois University, “the place looked more like an air base than a campus, with all of the veterans on the GI bill running around in their WWII flight jackets.”  That was an idea that made my young collector’s heart skip a beat or two, just like the famous wartime photos of piles of captured German helmets, Japanese swords, and of course, the acres and acres of surplus WWII B-17’s.  While we sadly cannot reach back through time to rescue any of those flying fortresses that ended up as scrap aluminum, we can work diligently to ensure that the 40 or so that remain are preserved to help illustrate the story of WWII for future generations.  The same principle applies to the artifacts discussed here: WWII A-2 flight jackets.  Better yet, unlike a B-17 that requires an army of highly skilled technicians and Scrooge McDuck level resources to restore and preserve, your average A-2 jacket is a much easier responsibility to undertake.

Though museums are (often, but not exclusively) best equipped and most inclined to follow the best practices for preservation, there is nothing preventing a veteran’s family or a collector from accomplishing that goal on their own.  The primary agents of damage for painted WWII A-2 flight jackets are bright light, ultraviolet light in particular, mold and mildew, temperature extremes, environmental fluctuations, insect infestation, rodents, improper display or storage, and sadly - uninformed good intentions.  Some of these can be very difficult or impossible to adequately remedy once the damage is done, but none of them are particularly challenging to avoid.

We will start with that last one.   From my experience as both a collector and dealer, I firmly believe that at this point in history the number one threat to the long-term preservation of these WWII artifacts is action that is taken by individuals with the very best of intentions, but following bad advice that is routinely promulgated by collectors.  To be fair, the practice of treating antique leather with various leather dressings was once accepted practice within the museum community as well.  However, just as medicine has advanced to the point where bleeding as a treatment for disease is understood to be generally more harmful than helpful, conservation science has evolved over the past 30+ years to recognize that in most circumstances, these leather dressing products are not only functionally ineffective at preserving leather, but cause significant damage outweighing any benefit, real or imagined. 

Collector proponents of these various products will readily concede that they tend to darken the leather, but feel that this is a small price to pay for the benefit of long-term preservation.  They routinely apply materials to leather items in their collections not only as a hopeful cure for damage already sustained, but even worse - as a prophylactic in the hopes of preventing any possible deterioration of items that were in perfectly good condition when they started.  Sadly, rather than preventing damage, they are causing it.  Conservation studies have demonstrated that the application of these products do lubricate in the short term, but “but oxidize with time, resulting in additional stiffening of the leather.”2   Consequently, collectors report the need to routinely “feed” their leather items.  They have inadvertently create a cycle in which they must apply the cure over and over again… because their ‘cure’ is actually the cause.  

Additionally, oils and materials from the original tanning process can react with these products in ways that manifest as a white, waxy ‘bloom’ that must be periodically cleaned.  The growth of verdigris where the leather is in contact with brass fittings is accelerated, oils will weaken the thread, and the varying degrees of tacky, sticky film left on the surface attracts dust and insects. 

So, if your artifact is in good condition to begin with, rather than create preservation problems, what steps should you take to make sure that it stays that way?  The main things we can actively do that will help insure the long-term survival of these jackets is to make sure that they are stored or displayed in proper conditions.  Keep in mind that even within a structure with good temperature and humidity conditions, unfavorable micro climates can exist within sealed display cases, basements, closets and attics.  Extremes of temperature and / or humidity are bad for most antiques including leather, but rapid changes are even worse, and can contribute to hardening leather.  A high humidity environment fosters mold and mildew; low humidity will cause leather to lose moisture and become brittle.  Maintaining a relatively constant, comfortable level of each is the goal.  Museums can be very specific in their temperature and humidity requirements depending on the artifacts that they store and display, but for leather it is fairly straight-forward: for most of us, where we are comfortable, your A-2 will be also.  Temperatures between 60°F and 80°F, and 30% to 55% relative humidity should be fine.   A dual function thermometer / hygrometer will inform you of temperature and humidity at a glance, and can be obtained from any number of online sources for under $20.  For display cases, the analog version is easiest as there are no batteries to change. 

Exposure to ultraviolet light is particularly bad for painted leather and should be avoided at all costs.  UV-filter glass for frames, filter films for windows and sleeves for bulbs are available, but none of these are 100% effective.  Non-UV wavelength light is not particularly hazardous to unpainted leather, but prolonged exposure to bright light is will degrade your painted leather A-2 flight jacket, or more specifically, pigments within the painted artwork.  The Canadian Conservation Institute recommends limiting exposure to more than 50 lux.  “As the damage due to light is cumulative and irreversible, exposure time should be limited.  Avoid exposing any leather to spotlights, direct sunlight, or daylight, all of which can cause discoloration, desiccation, and photo-chemical degradation.”3 

In recent years many of us have rejoiced at the replacement of high-UV producing fluorescent light fixtures with LED’s as the oncoming industry standard… but like so many things, the answer was not that simple.  The technology is evolving, and there exists a wide range of quality and characteristics within LED lighting.  Some older, poor quality LED lamps have been shown to accelerate damage to artwork; in one study, damage was observed at a rate of twice the normal pace of degradation.  However, some variants of the LED are quite good.  Lighting that uses a 415nm violet LED are generally considered an improvement on most other forms of museum lighting.4  For a nerdy deep dive into the nuance between different LED light rendering technologies and how artifacts are potentially affected over time, see the Canadian Conservation Institute’s Technical Bulletin #36 “LED Lighting in Museums and Art Galleries.”

When displayed, in addition to a low-light, no UV setting with good temperature and humidity levels, properly supporting the jacket should be a prime consideration.  Distributing the weight of the garment over as broad an area as possible can be accomplished by using a mannequin or torso form.  Ideally, avoid the old knit-covered pasteboard display forms, as these promote acid migration from the pasteboard to your jacket.   Wood mannequins if used should be varnished to eliminate that source of acid migration.  Plastic formulas vary, and some can be a source of damage as their chemical composition degrades with time, but this is more of an issue with the plastic storage tubs that many of us use.  Most of the plastic torso forms that I have had have been chemically inert, but just in case, a cotton t-shirt barrier between the jacket and mannequin is an easy safeguard.

Since space is at a premium for most of us, and prolonged exposure to light is a source of damage, just like museums, many collectors display some pieces while others are in storage.   Acid-free archival pasteboard or coroplast textile storage boxes large enough to accept the coat without folding are not inexpensive (~$60 ea. for 30”x24”x5”), but considering what is being protected, worth every penny!  Supporting the entire garment is the goal in storage, just as it was when on display.  The coat should be gently stuffed in the sleeves and body with unbuffered acid-free tissue to prevent hard edges and folds.  A layer of ethafoam in the bottom and/or additional acid-free tissue surrounding it in the box will help it to remain in place and not slide around when handled.  To protect against unexpected moisture issues, (a water leak, storm damage, etc.) some recommend an inert plastic bag around the jacket, but unsealed to allow the item to remain ventilated and not in a micro-climate.  I personally prefer the coroplast boxes for this same reason – the unhappy discovery of a broken pipe is only a mere aggravation if your collection is stored in coroplast boxes, but a potential tragedy if in a more vulnerable container.

Some family members elect to have their ancestor’s jacket mounted in a deep shadow-box type display frame.  While this is perhaps preferable to storage or display on a hanger (which is NEVER good, due to the strain imparted to the shoulders of the jacket), even under the best of circumstances, the garment is not properly supported.  The sleeves will be folded or flattened to accommodate display, and over time these hard edges will become more or less permanent.

Good housekeeping is also important to the long-term preservation of your A-2 jacket(s).  Rodents find leather to be a tasty treat, and insect damage from carpet beetles, silverfish, case-making clothes moths, and other pests can be devastating.  Keeping your environment free of crumbs, grease, and other things that will attract unwanted visitors to your collection is your best defense.  Carpet is generally a bad idea in spaces where artifacts are held, as it also traps materials that can attract creatures that do not share your historic preservation goals!  A periodic inspection of materials on display and especially in storage is advised.  Ignorance may be bliss, but the longer you remain unaware of a developing problem, the more damage will be done and the harder it will be to solve.

Another defense against insects and environmental problems that should be employed when you first acquire a jacket or during your routine inspections is a simple cleaning.  Dust and light soil can be removed gently with a soft bristle paintbrush, or by vacuum through a soft cloth screen separating the instrument from the garment.  A piece of cloth window screen on either side of an embroidery hoop works nicely for this, but most of the time slow and steady with the soft paintbrush is your safest bet.

More significant problems such as very heavy soil, mold, or contamination by a previous owner’s failure to resist the siren song of the leather dressing crowd may require assistance from a professional conservator.  The best solution is to prevent problems before they develop, but if you find a jacket out in the wild that is in need of help, there are a number of professionals who offer their services to the public.  Prices can vary considerably depending on the extent of the work that you need done.  Be careful, though.  There is a big difference between an actual conservator, and someone marketing services in leather jacket restoration.  The latter will cheerfully repaint worn artwork, replace damaged cuffs and waistbands, apply their personal favorite leather potion, then deliver back to you a ready-to-wear, brand new appearing jacket that has been thoroughly relieved of most if not all monetary and historical value.

Which brings us to two questions that are often posed by family members of a veteran, and some collectors alike.  Should a jacket be restored?  Is it a good idea to wear them?  If our goal is long-term preservation of a historical asset for future generations, the answer to both of these is a very clear and unequivocal “no!”  Restoration of damaged or missing knit components (cuffs and waistband), which were often damaged and replaced during the service life of the jacket is honestly not seen as a serious strike against the artifact from a market perspective.  Then again, modern replaced knit components do not increase the jacket’s historical or market value compared to missing or damaged waistband or cuffs, so with a bias toward originality, even if damaged, there really isn’t anything to gain from it.  Missing or replaced linings, however, are detractive.  Stitching that has worn out and been discreetly reinforced using appropriate thread fits the prime directive of conservation (never do what you cannot un-do), and serves to help stabilize the jacket and prevent further damage.  The same applies when a squadron or group patch has stitching that given way in spots, and has been discreetly secured to the coat.

Where the wheels fall off the bus rather quickly is any effort to improve on worn artwork.  From a fashion perspective; sure – nice bright artwork looks great.  For historical or monetary value, though – once it’s gone, it’s gone.  There is no putting it back, and any effort at doing so no matter how talented the artist will only degrade the value of the jacket.  Whether you’ve hired the reincarnation of Walt Disney, or that helpful parishioner from the church in Zaragoza that famously volunteered to restore the Ecce Homo fresco, your restored jacket will be historically and monetarily worth less than when you started.

If your goal is to pay tribute to your ancestor, or simply to have an awesome painted A-2 flight jacket to wear, the answer to both of those questions is one in the same: purchase a quality reproduction and hire a professional to paint it for you.  Firms like Eastman offer jackets that are of such faithful quality as to be essentially brand new originals, and there are a number of artists who can be found through the A-2 jacket artist page on Facebook, who are capable of recreating stunning jackets that look as though they jumped right out an original photograph.

So in short – keep good constant temperature and humidity in a well-maintained and regularly cleaned house.  Your treasured jacket should be stored flat, properly supported, in an acid-free box and total darkness most of the time; fully-supported on a torso form in low light some of the time, don’t do anything you can’t un-do, and ignore the helpful advice of those who just cannot be convinced that hugging the puppy until it suffocates is not really love.  If you can successfully manage all of that, then you will be the reason why your jacket is one of the original 700,000 that is still around to tell the story of WWII, long after the great majority are lost to history.