Preserving old love letters is easy (I promise)

by Sally J.

in * How to PRESERVE Family History Treasures, Free Articles / Blog

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Photo of love letters by Jayegirl99 via Flickr

Whether you’ve inherited your favorite grandma’s love letters or it’s your name on the envelope, I have good news for you: It’s easy to preserve them long term. Pinkie-swear promise.

Compared to other formats, paper is the least complicated. And love letters are basically just paper and a little ink or graphite.

Think about it this way: Every photographic print begins with paper, but then there’s extra layers of binders and emulsion on top of it. These layers expand and contract at varying rates under the same environmental conditions, which causes stress and cracking. Books start as simple paper sheets with ink, but then they’re folded and sewn into a final piece that’s expected to open and close repeatedly. When the moveable structure of a book fails, it puts the pages in more peril from the elements.

So…compared to all that, your letters will be a breeze to preserve.

Just follow these simple (and totally do-able) steps.

1. First, keep your letters away from these damaging elements:

  • Light
  • Heat
  • High humidity
  • Dust & Air Pollutants
  • Unsafe or Careless Handling
  • Bugs / Pests
  • Disasters (fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, etc.)

2. Store your letters in the right part of your house:

“I found these letters in the attic” is the start of a great Country & Western song, but as a preservation plan? It’s lousy. If you want any kind of documents to be around for generations to come you need to store them in a climate controlled area. Basically, that means a space that’s heated in winter and cooled in summer — and not noticeably humid *or* prone to flooding. In other words, someplace other than the attic, basement, garage or barn.

The two best locations are an interior closet or under a bed, as long as it’s away from a radiator or heating vent.

Photo of archival manuscript box by Justgrimes via Flickr

3. Store them in the right kind of containers:

Both sunlight and florescent bulbs give off damaging UV rays. The easiest way to keep love letters safe is to only put copies on display (never originals), and to store the originals in opaque containers. The safest kind is acid free paper folders and boxes. Archival supplies like this are available year round from suppliers such as Hollinger-Metal Edge, University Products, Talas and Gaylord.

Here’s a quick tip on how to save money on archival supplies: If you have a large collection of letters, say 3 or more of the “manuscript boxes” pictured left, you should purchase the larger “record center carton” type of box. It fits 15″ of papers if you have letter size, 12″ if you have legal size. Some companies even sell ones that ship flat, which saves you on shipping.

During every October, I sell a large preservation kit I call my “Family Archivist Survival Kit.” It includes a letter sized manuscript box and folders — just perfect for letters and 8×10 photos, too. Visit the FASK page if you’d like to learn more about what’s in it. (Note: the Buy Now button won’t be working until October 2012).

4. Next, gently unfold anything that’s folded. Creases can become permanent, which creates a weak spot that’s more likely to break off or tear. To prevent this from happening, remove folded letters from the envelope and gently unfold them.

Photo by Joanna Bourne, via Flickr

What should I do with the envelopes? You can keep them next to the unfolded letter, or toss them if you prefer to save space.

Whichever way you choose, be sure to transfer important information — date, city, names — to the letter itself. Use a soft No. 1 pencil and write lightly using square brackets [July 21, 1921]. The square brackets tell librarians and archivists that you added this information later and it’s not part of the original document. (I’m not sure if your descendants will know the difference, but it’s pretty easy to do and who knows? They might end up in a historical society someday.)

5. Large papers should be stored flat, or rolled if it’s seriously huge. If you purchasing an archival flat box, I recommend the drop-front kind. They give you easier access to the content on the bottom without having to take everything out. Archival suppliers also sell oversize folders and envelopes, plus acid free cardboard tubes to protect rolled items. Again, your main goal here is to get rid of the folds and creases.

Hey, thanks for reading until the end. :) Quick question: Have you ever burned love letters? I’m asking because when I searched flickr for CC-licensed photos using the phrase “love letters” – I stumbled on images of a fireplace FULL of love letters. Here’s the before picture. And one of the after shots. It’s not in English, so I’m not sure what the background story is exactly, but it says there are 500 love letters. Whoa.

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