Preserving Old Family Letters

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If you are fortunate enough to have a cache of old family letters, you are sitting on a gold mine. Letter writing has gone by the wayside since the invention of the telephone, e-mail, texting, Twitter, and Facebook, just to name a few ways of modern communication. Those old letters in your genealogy records collection should be preserved for future generations. Whether you have 100 letters or just one, they are important to your family history and add to your family story.

Some you may have in your collection could include war letters. These are not only important to your family history but to world history, especially if your ancestor wrote about the war in their letters. Love letters are a great resource for genealogy information and to learn how your ancestors met and fell in love. Some of my favorite letters are migration letters, those letters written by family members who migrated to different parts of the US or from one country to another. Preserving their experiences is essential to ensure the information is not lost.

Let’s Get Organized

First things first, let’s get organized. Many genealogists have piles of letters, shoe boxes full of letters or stacks of letters held together with a rubber band or ribbon. Getting these organized will help you manage your genealogy records, and during the process, you will probably find information that you never knew before.

–Arrange your letters in chronological order. This is a simple way to begin organizing your letters. Use the date on the letter or the date on the envelope postmark. Just be consistent, use one or the other.

–Do you have letters by multiple family members? Organize them first by surname, and then chronological order for each surname. This is a good choice for organizing if you worry about finding a certain person’s letters quickly and efficiently.

–If you have groups of letters for different events in your ancestors’ lives, perhaps organize them by event. For example, put all the World War II letters together, all the college letters together, etc. After you have grouped them, then organize by date.

–The most important part of organizing the letters is to find a system that works for you. Then be consistent in your methods throughout the process.

Unfold and Flatten

Once you have decided on an organization method, it’s time to do some preservation work. Maybe you have heard the word “preservation” and really didn’t know what it meant. It means “to take action to prevent deterioration or loss” according to the Society of American Archivist Glossary of Terms.

As an archivist, the number one question I am asked by genealogists when it comes to old family letters is: ”Do I leave the letter in the envelope or take it out?” My answer is always: Take the letters out of the envelopes.

Leaving letters folded and in their envelopes will do more damage as time goes by. The main reason is that people will frequently take them in and out of their envelopes to read them over and over which can cause damage. The folds in the letters, over time, will weaken the paper and will tear or rip. You don’t want that to happen, so here are some steps you can do at home to preserve your old family letters.

  • Take each letter out of its envelope and unfold it so it is flat. CAUTION: Be careful that you do not mix up letters and envelopes. Keep each letter with its envelope. I suggest that as you remove and flatten each letter, use a plastic paper clip to hold the letter to its envelope. DO NOT USE METAL PAPER CLIPS Please do not use metal paper clips, in fact, NEVER use any metal on any of your documents. Metal paper clips will damage your documents by rusting and adhering to your documents. This can cause rust stains and perhaps tearing when you try to pry the clips from the paper.
  • If your letters have been folded up and in their envelopes for a long time, they may not lay flat automatically. In this case, you will need to take steps to help them flatten. Lay the letter on a clean, dry surface that is away from sunlight where they can be left untouched for a period of time. Be sure to lay the envelope with the letter. While the envelope probably doesn’t need to be flattened, you don’t want to separate the letter from the envelope.

Encapsulate

Now that you have flattened your letters, you are ready to encapsulate them. The term encapsulate means “to enclose something or completely cover something.” The purpose of encapsulating your letters and envelopes is to completely protect them from damage while being handled. Ideally, don’t handle your letters much. Encapsulating them will also help keep dust and dirt from getting on them.

  • You need to purchase archival document sleeves that are acid-free, lignin-free and have passed the P.A.T. (Photographic Activity Test) The material used in these sleeves can be mylar, polyester or polypropylene. The sleeves come in all sizes to accommodate different letter stationary. Be sure to get the size that fits your letters properly and leaves about one-quarter inch of space all around. You do not want to stuff letters in the sleeves or have too much room in the sleeves allowing the letters to move around. Do not skimp on this step; you must use proper sleeves.
  • Make sure to place the envelope with the letter in the sleeve. Remember, you don’t want to separate them; keep letter and envelope together at all times. If your envelope still has the flap intact, make sure it is folded down on itself so it is not touching the letter. The glue strip still on the envelope flap may contain chemicals that could damage your letter if it comes in contact with the letter.
  • When you have placed your letter and envelope together in the sleeve, you will see that immediately the sleeve will close around the document via static electricity. This is what keeps the sleeve closed to protect your letters, and not allow them to fall out.

Once the letters are encapsulated, put them in archival file folders and then into filing cabinets or you can place them in three-ring binders.

Family letters are a unique, one-of-a-kind one record collection. The information in them is priceless and should be preserved.

This is a guest post by archivist and professional genealogist Melissa Barker, the owner of Once Upon A Time Genealogy. She has over 26 years of genealogy research experience and six years’ experience in the archives/records management field.  

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  • Roxie aka Roxanne Rodwell


    March 14, 2019

    I have letter from my grandfather whom I never knew. It is at least 100 years old by now.. I”m so glad that my mother saved it as well as her mother’s letter from her sister. I also have two little books that my father gave to my mother before they were married. The original leather covers are deteriorating and I don’t know what to do about that. They are inscribed by my father. I treasure them but I don’t know that my children will feel the same about them.

    I appreciate your information concerning the preservation of these items.

  • Peter Joseph Louw


    March 14, 2019

    My name is Peter Joseph Louw the founder of
    Africare Research And Support is a Freelance Research company and will be making use of your service and resources and will network with others by forwarding your details to help you and them discovering and solving these centuries old mysteries.

  • Helen Simmons


    March 15, 2019

    I have linear feet of various family letters. I am scanning and indexing these letters and envelopes so I can share with other family members. Most of these letters are multiple pages written on both the front and back of the paper and date from the Civil War right through the 1970’s.
    I am concerned about flatting these letters that have been stored in the envelopes for so long and vary in size.
    Thank you for the interesting article.

  • Cheryl Cockrum


    March 15, 2019

    If the letter is multiple pages – do you put each page in it’s own sleeve? If they have written on the front and back side of the paper – where do you put the envelope?

  • Patricia Murphy Minch


    March 15, 2019

    I have hundreds of letters dating from WWII. My father’s penmanship was nearly impossible to read, so my first challenge, after organizing them by date, was to transcribe each one and print out the transcription, single-sided, on 8 1/2 by 11 archival card stock. I artfully arranged and color-copied the letter and its envelope (and sometimes a photograph, radiogram, or other enclosure) onto a second sheet of card stock. I then placed the two pieces of card stock back to back, tucked the original flattened letter, envelope and any enclosures in between, and slipped the packet into an archival sleeve which I then placed into a 3-ring binder. I ended up with three of these 6-inch-thick binders. Family members or other researchers can now browse through and read without mixing up or jeopardizing the original documents, which are fully protected from dirt, oil, and sunlight. It was a lengthy project, but the story that emerged was fascinating, prompting further research on my part and eventually, after a dozen years, resulted in a 500-page, fully sourced book about the guerrilla war in North Luzon in the Philippines: The Luckiest Guerrilla: A True Tale of Love, War and the Army.

  • Bertha Hall


    March 16, 2019

    Where do I purchase the various sizes of archive sleeves?

  • Roger Barnes


    March 16, 2019

    I wish your page was more printer friendly. Some webpages have a print friendly option in addition to the share/tweet/email/like options but I don’t see one here. When I print the page directly, several lines at the bottom of each page gets cut off, making the print out useless. Can you provide a print friendly option?

    • Esther


      March 19, 2019

      Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Dick Horner


    March 17, 2019

    A couple years ago, I was doing research in a courthouse in Ohio. There was also a couple people in there who were microfilming records for a contract they had with FamilySearch. They showed me how they did all their work, which included how they dealt with folds in the old documents. They took a Q-Tip with a tiny amount of alcohol and swabbed the fold. They explained the alcohol caused the paper fibers in the fold to “release”. Then they placed the document on a flat surface, placed a cloth over the document, and then ironed the document. I think the iron was only warm. I was pretty amazed how nicely flattened the documents were.

  • Anne


    March 17, 2019

    Just a huge thank you. I am engaged in just such a project. Wise advice.

  • Scott Saftler


    March 23, 2019

    To the person asking about a printer-friendly option, I have a paperless option for you to consider. Pick up a program like “Evernote”, which will scrape just about any web page, including photos, and store them on your own computer. You can separate your articles into various “notebooks” and assign tags to each document, then sort and print those if you wish.

  • Robin


    March 24, 2019

    I have a letter from my that contained a random sentence about his father (my grandfather) using a nickname until he was married. This little clue was the secret to connecting that branch into the rest of the tree,

  • Sam Brainerd


    March 25, 2019

    An important additional step that one can take with family letters is transcribing them. Not only will an accurate transcription help preserve the letters themselves by reducing the need to take the letters out of their protective sleeves, but it will also allow for the annotation of interesting details contained within the letters. Readers can then understand the letters itself without having to puzzle through the handwriting themselves and they can get the benefit of any additional research and comments you have made in your annotations.

  • Kathleen Carlson


    May 2, 2019

    I am 72 years old and have only six nephews and nieces. Is there any guidance as to how to choose the best child to receive all my letters and genealogical items? I think it would be helpful.

  • Kerstin Fraser


    May 3, 2019

    I have letters from the trenches in WWI, letters sent to family in Australia in the 1860s, military commissions on parchment (vellum?), and so on. I keep them flat in acid free bound books. Spiral spines may damage the letters. The books keep the letters flat and keep the light off them. I then keep the book closed with a piece of elastic, and note on the front that the book contains loose papers so it is opened with care.

  • Sueie Barber


    May 3, 2019

    Hi Esther,
    Thanks for your article. Very informative.
    You did not mention scanning them to a computer.
    Wouldnt this be a good idea to proctect from fire?
    Thanks again
    Sueie

    • Esther


      May 8, 2019

      Hi Sueie,

      Making a hard copy to backup your files is always a smart idea!

      Good luck with your research!

      Esther

  • J Lockwood


    May 3, 2019

    What is the next best thing from throwing everything in the recycling?

    I began using acid-free archival paper and envelopes in the 1970’s, but have not gone beyond that.

    Now i am at the end of my family line with no relationship with, or even knowledge of, anyone way out in almost all branches of my extended family. I’m still going through tens of thousands of photographs that ended up in jumbles in dozens of boxes I inherited. I have no interest, and absolutely no time, to try to locate people, historical societies, or others throughout the country that have no clue who I am and asking them if they want a pile of photos and a letter or two. No one I know in my personal life cares about their own family records that way, let alone my family’s records and piles of unidentified photographs from totally unrelated families thousands of miles away. Everyone who might have recognized who the people are in the photos from the 16+ ancestral branches of my family in the 1800’s, are long dead and gone.

    I may go to some trouble to locate someone out there in one of the off-shoots who would like a huge family Bible, but from my perspective, no one is going to miss a thing if everything else goes in the recycling bin after I die.

    I truly am curious and will be grateful if there are recommendations on something I can do that does require me to engage in an epic project!

    ~ ~ THANK YOU ALL!

  • Norma Holmes


    May 3, 2019

    My father died 3 months before I was born and I have a metal disc with a recording of his voice which needs to be played with a wooden record player needle! Is there any way I could have this transferred to either a CD or dvd?

    • Esther


      May 8, 2019

      Hi Norma,

      There are many companies that specialize in this service. We suggest that you transfer it so that it can be kept for future generations!

      Best,
      Esther

  • Gilbert Nelson


    May 3, 2019

    Do you recommend using a de-acidifying spray, like Wei-To? It is pretty expensive, but all the wood acids continue to degrade the paper, even in a sleeve. Just interested in your thoughts.

  • Suzie Coe


    May 3, 2019

    I have newspapers and larger size magazines from May-Sept 1915. How can I preserve them?

  • Carolyn Williamson


    May 3, 2019

    I have letters written during the 1930s through 1950s from relatives in Hungary and Germany to my grandparents in America. The letters are written in German. And the penmanship is very difficult to even distinguish letters, much less words. Is there a translation program I can use or do I need to find perhaps a German teacher to translate for me?

  • Kay Scyphers


    May 3, 2019

    Thanks for this information. I do have old family letters that I did not know what to do with and thought that no one else, including my children, would want them. Most of them are 50-55 years old and I had thought to destroy them so that my children would not have to when I am gone. I am 85 years old now so I had better get started preserving them. Thank you! I also have pictures of my mother from 18 months old and my grandmother as a young married. What to do with these other than leave them to my family? They are over 100 years old and I have my family bible from my parent’s wedding in 1928.

  • rae nicolaou


    May 3, 2019

    My sister threw away all my mothers letters and I don’t have them from the war and thing,

  • Anna Lambe


    May 4, 2019

    I have letter in Russian and or Ukranian, how Do I have them translated.

  • Laura Sesko


    May 5, 2019

    This is excellent advise. I had letters that my uncle received from his mother (my grandmother) when he was in the Army during WWII. I scanned each letter and envelopes b4 putting them in clear sleeves. I then made copies of the letters and had them put into book form by a copying place and sent the books to my first cousins. My grandmother had near perfect penmanship so there was no need for translations. I was 3 when she passed away, so it gave me insight into our family life in the early 1940’s.

  • shirley Beaumont


    May 8, 2019

    so pleased you gave mention and info on preserving old letters. I have alot regarding distant family members with my surname collection.

  • Linda


    September 21, 2019

    I’m so glad I found your post. I was sorting through an old box of correspondence and found a handful of letters I’d like to archive. Your advice will be very handy today.

    Linda