What the Constitution and beef jerky have in common

Friday - 9/17/2010, 10:13am EDT

Kitty Nicholson, supervisory conservator, NARA

Click below to hear the interview

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

It's Constitution Day. Time to learn something new about what is arguably the nation's most important document.

For example, it's possible the 223 year old, 4-page long handwritten parchment might smell like beef jerky.

"Every once in a while people are confused: they think these documents are written on paper," Kitty Nicholson, supervisory conservator with the National Archives explained to Federal News Radio.

They're not.

"They're written on a specially prepared animal skin that's much more durable than paper," said Nicholson. "Thicker and stronger. And it was reserved for the most important documents that we have. And in the same way that when you graduate from college, they give you a sheepskin, that's a piece of parchment, these were written on animal skin too. So they will last, we hope, for many many more centuries."

While the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) isn't sure what kind of animal skin it is, Nicholson told Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Amy Morris "we intend to do DNA analysis, but by sheer size of the parchment, it must have been cattle." Sheepskin, said Nicholson, would be smaller "and it's not the same quality actually."

"The Constitution was written on a cow," said Morris, a bit awed. "Several cows," corrected Nicholson and laughed.

All four pages are kept hermetically sealed in an inert gas, said Nicholson, and not often exposed to oxygen, so it's doubtful there's really any smell.

To learn more about the Constitution, NARA invites one and all to stop by today, chat with "Dolly Madison" and enjoy some cake. For details about today's event, click here, and to hear the entire interview with Kitty Nicholson, click on the audio player at the top of the page.

Conservator Kitty Nicholson consolidates lifting flakes of ink on the Transmittal Page of the Constitution.