Save The Robe

New campaign raises funds to restore Chief Justice John Marshall’s historic garment.

Steel engraving of Justice John Marshall, Alonzo Chappel 1862.

As the longest serving Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall (1755-1835) helped establish the federal judiciary as a constitutional equal of the president and Congress. One of his lesser-known accomplishments is his role in standardizing the black robe for Supreme Court justices.

Sadly, Marshall’s own garment, dating back to the first half of the 19th century, is in dire need of restoration due to acid hydrolysis from the dye and iron mordant used to achieve its deep shade of black. Preservation Virginia, which owns the robe, and the John Marshall Foundation recently launched “Save the Robe,” a national fundraising and awareness campaign to preserve this critical piece of American history—because without immediate stabilization, conservation, and documentation, this important artifact in American history could be lost forever. 

“John Marshall’s simple black robe is a national treasure and an irreplaceable icon of American judicial power,” says Kevin Walsh, president of the John Marshall Foundation and a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “The idea that it could be lost for future generations is unthinkable.”

Howard Sutcliffe, principal conservator and director of River Region Costume and Textile Conservation, will perform the conservation. Sutcliffe’s previous projects include preserving Tiraz fragments from Medieval Egypt, Tzar Nicholas II’s parade uniform, and the original Kermit the Frog puppet.

The campaign’s goal is to raise $218,000, which will not only help restore Marshall’s robe but also fund civics education programs and three duplicate robes for traveling exhibitions. Once restored, the robe will remain in the permanent collection of Preservation Virginia’s John Marshall House, the home in Richmond’s historic Court End neighborhood that Marshall built in 1790 and lived in for 45 years until his death. The robe will be stored in an archival case as part of a new exhibition. SaveTheRobe.com


This article originally appeared in our December 2019 issue.

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