Preserving old family letters is one of the best things you can do to be sure their precious content is available to future generations. Follow these easy steps from The Archive Lady, Melissa Barker, to organize and preserve the old correspondence in your family history archive.
Writing letters has become a thing of the past! If you are fortunate enough to have a collection of old family letters, you have a true treasure.
In addition to digitizing them, physically preserving them is one of the best things you can do to save the genealogical information contained in those old family letters. Here are some simple steps to preserve the old letters that you may have.
Preserving Old Letters in 4 Easy Steps
1. Arrange letters chronologically.
You can go by the date on the letter itself or by the postmark date on the envelope.
It is important to put your old letters in chronological order because sometimes there is information in those letters that continue from letter to letter and you want to make sure you read them in the order originally written.
If you have groups of letters from different events such as WWII letters, college letters, or vacation letters, you could group them together and then organize each grouping by date.
2. Unfold old letters.
Once you have put your letters in chronological order, it’s time to do some preservation work.
I am asked all the time about letters and whether to leave them folded and in their envelopes. I can tell you that all archivists remove the letters from the envelopes and archive them unfolded. The creases made by folding and unfolding letters can cause damage and eventually those creases get weak and can cause the letters to tear into pieces. It is always best to unfold old family letters.
3. Encapsulate the old letters.
The term encapsulates means “to enclose something or to completely cover something.”
Now that you have unfolded and flattened your letters, you will want to encapsulate them in archival safe sleeves that can be purchased at any online archival supply store. Look for reputable preservation supply companies like Gaylord.
Be sure to put the envelope with the letter in the same sleeve so that it doesn’t get lost or mixed up with another letter that it doesn’t belong to. When you’re working with many letters in a collection, the letter can easily be separated from the envelope. But envelopes may include crucial details such as dates, the identity and address of the writer, and interesting postmarks, so you want to keep them together.
4. Filing and storing old letters.
After you have put your letters in chronological order, unfolded them and encapsulated them, it is now time to file and store them.
Archivists prefer to put their encapsulated letters into archival file folders and then into archival boxes, being sure to keep the chronological order intact. (Click here for Gaylord’s Family Archives Document Preservation Kit, complete with archival folders and an archival box.)
This process gives you three layers of protection for your letters to ensure they are completely preserved and protected from bugs, dust, and anything else that could get to them and damage them.
Following these guidelines to preserving your family letters will ensure they are protected and saved for you to enjoy and for your future descendants to enjoy!
Next step: Digitize your old family letters.
Old letters can fall prey to many unfortunate situations. Ink can fade and paper can crumble. If this happens, the messages on your old letters may eventually be lost, despite your best efforts. It’s also possible that the entire file folder full of the original letters could be lost, damaged, or even destroyed!
Digitizing your old family letters lets you digitally preserve the content for future generations. It’s the best way to added another layer of protection. Duplication is a fundamental key to preservation.
In the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 144, host and producer Lisa Louise Cooke talks with The Family Curator Denise Levenick about digitizing and organizing your family history. Click here to hear their conversation and start preserving your own family letters and other original documents.
You’ll Never Regret Preserving Your Old Family Letters
As you can seem it’s actually pretty easy to preserve your old family letters. I encourage you to get started today so that you’ll never have regrets in the future.
About the Author:
Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.
Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.
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Victorian lifestyle expert and author Sarah Chrisman shares favorite–and authentic–recipes for tangy homemade cranberry sauce (served hot or cold) and a hearty vegetable hash.
Sarah Chrisman, who lives every day like it’s Victorian times and writes about it in several books, is the current featured author for the Genealogy Gems Book Club. She’ll join both the Genealogy Gems podcast and the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast in December to talk about Victorian-style holidays and her books, including This Victorian Life.
In the coming weeks, Sarah will share her favorite mouth-watering, made-from-scratch Victorian recipes here on the Genealogy Gems blog. Some of her recipes come straight from cookbooks of the time period, and others she has adapted for modern kitchens and tastes.
Below, she shares a simple recipe for tangy cranberry sauce, simmered from whole, fresh cranberries, and a hot, hearty vegetable hash side dish, which Sarah calls “a good way to use up leftovers after the holiday!”
“Pick over and wash two cupfuls of fine cranberries. Put them in an earthen dish, pour over a cup of sugar, add a cupful of boiling water, cover, and cook gently nearly an hour. Serve hot or cold.”
-From Catering for Two, by Alice L. James. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York and London. (n.d.) p. 178.
Note: the above edition of Catering for Two isn’t dated, but a first edition found online is dated 1898.
- Chop rather coarsely the remains of vegetables left from a boiled dinner, such as cabbage, parsnips, potatoes, etc.
- Sprinkle over them a little pepper.
- Place in a saucepan or frying-pan over the fire.
- Put in a piece of butter the size of a hickory nut.
- When it begins to melt, tip the dish so as to oil the bottom, and around the sides.
- Then put in the chopped vegetables.
- Pour in a spoonful or two of hot water from the tea-kettle.
- Cover quickly so as to keep in the steam.
- When heated thoroughly take off the cover and stir occasionally until well cooked.
- Serve hot.
“Persons fond of vegetables will relish this dish very much.”
–The Capitol Cook Book, 1896, p. 188
More Recipes for a Very Victorian Holiday Season
Click here to see last week’s Victorian-era recipe for a rich roasted turkey with chestnut stuffing and gravy. (We even included a quick how-to video tutorial for trussing the turkey!)
Genealogy Gems Book Club featured author, Sarah Chrisman (This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in 19th-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion and Technologies) will be serving up a series of favorites in celebration of her coming Book Club interviews on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast and Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast in December.
I have thoroughly enjoyed having Amie Tennant as a blogger for the past year. In her final blog post for Genealogy Gems she takes us on a tour of her home state’s digital records. Then she will be turning all of her attentions to her own genealogical certification. Thank you Amie for all of your helpful and thoroughly enjoyable posts! – Lisa Louise Cooke
Ohio genealogy research goes digital. You can now virtually walk into any courthouse in Ohio with the click of the mouse. Check out the amazing browse-only databases at FamilySearch for Ohio and other states, and take your family history research to the next level.
I use FamilySearch.org to search courthouse record books all the time. In particular, the Ohio Probate Records, 1789-1996 now have nearly 7 million digital images of county record books such as wills, estate files, guardianship records, naturalization records, minutes, bonds, and settlements. In fact, many other states have their court record books online at FamilySearch, too. So, why haven’t you noticed before?
Browse-only Databases vs. Indexed Databases
You may have read our previous post on step-by-step instructions to using browse-only databases at FamilySearch. If you didn’t, you should know that when you are searching for records at FamilySearch using the traditional search fields, you are only searching for records that have been indexed. In other words, there may be thousands of records you need on the site, but you won’t find them. They have not been indexed by a searchable name, place, or date. Instead, you need to go in the virtual “back door.”
Step 1: First, go to FamilySearch and sign in. Next, click Search at the top right. Now you will see a map of the world. Click on the desired location. I have chosen the U.S., but you can choose any country you are interested in.
Step 2: Once you choose your desired country or continent, a pop-up list will be available and allow you to choose the state (or country) you wish to search in. In this case, a list of the U.S. states appears and I clicked on Ohio.
Step 3: The system will direct you to a new page. You will first see the Ohio Indexed Historical Records. These are the records and collections that have been indexed and are searchable by name, date, and place. Though these are great, they are not the record collections I want to share with you today.
Instead, scroll down until you see the heading Ohio Image Only Historical Records. You will notice several databases such as cemetery records, church records, naturalization records, etc. All of these are browseable. That means you will use them like you would microfilm.
Step 4: I want to bring your attention to a specific record collection, so scroll down even further until you see Ohio Probate Records, 1789-1996. Click it.
At the next screen, you will see you can browse the 6,997,828 Ohio probate records and you are probably thinking, “What!? I can’t possibly browse through nearly 7 million records!” But, you can, so go ahead and click it!
Step 5: At the new screen, you will see everything is broken up into counties. Click on the county you are interested in researching. You will next see a list of possible record books available for that county. Each county will vary, so where you may find guardianship records available in one county, you might not find them in another.
Ohio Genealogy Research at the Courthouse
As a refresher, courthouse research is often imperative to thorough genealogy research. Here is a helpful chart of the type of information you may find in these types of court records. Be sure to remember: records and the amount of information they contain change over time.
More on Courthouse Research Techniques
Are you looking to understand the value of courthouse research and how to use those records to overcome brick walls in your family tree? Read 4 Ways to Power Up Your Courthouse Research Skills from our own Sunny Morton.
Every Friday, we blog about new genealogy records online. Might these collections include your ancestors? Today: British apprenticeships, Cleveland Jewish newspapers, Costa Rica civil registrations, Croatia church books, North Dakota state censuses, and Pennsylvania Civil War rosters.
BRITISH APPRENTICE RECORDS. FindMyPast subscribers can now Britain, Country Apprentices, 1710-1808. These nationwide registers for apprenticeships “recorded the tax paid for each indenture for an apprentice. The average apprenticeship was seven years.” Records may include an ancestor’s parent(s), his/her master and the profession chosen.
CLEVELAND OH JEWISH NEWSPAPERS. The Cleveland Jewish News Archives has added digitized newspapers that preceded the Cleveland Jewish News (already online) back to 1893. Among the papers included are these weeklies: The Hebrew Observer (1889-1899), The Jewish Independent (1906-1964 weekly), The Jewish Review (1893-1899) and The Jewish Review and Observer (1899-1964). Subscription required.
COSTA RICA CIVIL REGISTRATION. More than a million indexed records have been added to the free browsable digital images of Costa Rice Civil Registration, 1860-1975 at FamilySearch. This includes “Births, marriages, deaths, legitimizations and indexes created by civil registration offices in Costa Rica.”
CROATIA CHURCH BOOKS. Nearly 3 million indexed records have been added to FamilySearch’s free collection of Croatia Church Books, 1516-1994. Browsable images are already online. According to the collection description, “Records of births and baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials peformed by priests in Croatia. Includes vital records of Jews. These records were acquired from the Croatian State Archive. Baptisms through 1900 can be searched.”
NORTH DAKOTA CENSUSES. Over 350,000 indexed records each for North Dakota censuses of 1915 and 1925 are now searchable for free at FamilySearch. Included in these records are names, titles, relations to heads of household, hold, race, residence and family number.
PENNSYLVANIA CIVIL WAR MUSTERS. Ancestry subscribers can now search Pennsylvania Civil War Muster Rolls, 1860-1869. Says Ancestry, “This collection includes muster out rolls, arranged by regiment and thereunder by company. They list the soldier’s name, age, rank, unit, regiment and company; the date, place, and person who mustered him in; the period of enlistment; and the name of the commanding officer. Other details can include where the soldier enlisted, whether he was drafted or was paid as a substitute, pay earned, money owed to the U.S. for clothing or missing equipment, promotions, capture by the enemy, illnesses, and bounty paid and owed. At the end of the musters, transfers, deaths, and deserters were often listed, typically with details about the circumstances (e.g., where and when transferred; cause, date, and location of deaths; dates and places of desertion, etc.).”
Here’s a tip: Always read the descriptions for online collections you are searching. The descriptions generally tell you the source of the records; which records are included/missing; what genealogical data you may find in them and tips for searching the dataset. Some websites also suggest related databases. This tip comes to you courtesy of The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke, freshly updated and completely revised for 2015!