4 Easy Steps to Preserving Old Letters

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.

Preserving Old Letters Archive Lady

(Courtesy Houston County, TN. Archives.) Old letters like these need careful preservation.

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.

preserving old letters 4 steps

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.

Preserving Family Letters Family Archivist

An encapsulated letter

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!

Perserving Old Family Letters (3)

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. 

Free-Podcast-292x300 preserving old letters

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.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, Genealogy Gems earns from qualifying purchases. This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

3 Steps to Preserve Thanksgiving Traditions (and other holidays too!)

In this free video, you’ll discover three important steps you can take right now to capture and preserve your family traditions for generations to come from my wonderful friend and colleague Gena Philibert-Ortega. Happy Thanksgiving!

Watch Now:

Resources:

Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video here. (Premium Membership required.)

Show Notes: Three steps to preserve your Thanksgiving traditions

Thanksgiving, in my opinion, is a family history holiday. It’s one where families gather, where we bring out family heirlooms, and where we talk where we share memories. So, it’s a good time to think about your Thanksgiving traditions, write them down, preserve them, and share them. So, let’s talk a little bit about how to do that.

#1 Ask

I have my memories of Thanksgiving from when I was a kid, when I was a young adult, and then later when I was married, and had small children versus older children. However, my kids have their own memories, and grandparents have their memories too. So, now’s the time to ask about those and write them down. Those memories might have to do with food, material culture, which I’ll define in just a second, or they may have to do with events.

Food:

What are the recipes that you use at Thanksgiving?

How does Thanksgiving food change as you grow older? Or as the roles switch?

Who cooks, and how has that changed over time?

Who’s there with you enjoying the meal and the holiday?

These are things that you can interview family members or yourself and write down.

Material Culture and Thanksgiving:

Material culture simply means stuff. So what stuff is used to put on Thanksgiving? At my house, that means the special tablecloth and the China both mine and my grandmother’s.

What do you bring out to serve Thanksgiving? It might be special dinnerware, or special serving pieces. It might be aprons to wear, or special linens.

What kinds of things are on the little kids table?

What is brought out and talked about and how has that changed over the years?

What do you use for special occasions like Thanksgiving? Do you go out to eat?

What events are associated with Thanksgiving for your family? Some families like to play a little flag football, some families watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

Whatever it is for your family, write that down, talk about it, explain what it is. Remember, we’re preserving memories that our children and grandchildren will read in the future. They may not understand what that event is. So, make sure you describe it.

#2 Document

What are some of the ways you can document your traditions? Well, you can do it with photographs.  You can share photos from the past Thanksgiving. Have everybody bring the photos they have. You can even create a Thanksgiving album for your family. You can gather photos, photos from recent Thanksgivings, and even take photos of this Thanksgiving. You can ask family members to write their memories. You could also interview family members and create a video.

Paper or computer programs:

For example, maybe you could put together recipe cards and hand them out at Thanksgiving. Have everybody write their favorite recipes and then duplicate them and pass them out.

Family cookbook:

There are certainly many different programs online that you can use to create one yourself or that you can send to a specialized cookbook publisher.

Tablecloth:

Get a white tablecloth and bring out waterproof markers and ask family members to write their name. Write the date write events that have happened in the year. Write down memories if they want for little kids have them trace their hands, have them sign their name the best they can write their ages down. You can use that year after year, or you can preserve it for one specific year.

#3 Share

A lot of us have the habit of gathering information and then not really sharing it. But sharing it is what makes sure that things are preserved and ensures that it’s preserved that it goes down the generations. And it’s a good idea to have copies in case some are lost. Sharing is important. So how do we do that?

Physically:

We can do that by creating physical items like:

  • photo albums
  • flash drives (create duplicate flash drives and hand them out to the family.)
  • post things on social media, like a family Facebook page, or maybe a Pinterest board, or even your online family tree on Ancestry or FamilySearch
  • the cloud – where family members can download what they need when they need it. And you can continue to add family members over the years. And that might be done in a cloud program like Dropbox or Google Drive.

Preserve Your Thanksgiving Traditions Today

There are all kinds of ways that you can share Thanksgiving traditions and memories with other family members. Do what’s best for you what’s easiest for you, and what gets the information out there sooner rather than later. Thanksgiving is a special time and it’s something that we may all look forward to maybe because of the food or the family. I hope that you take some time this Thanksgiving to preserve your family memories. Happy Thanksgiving!

Resources:

Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video here. (Premium Membership required.)

About My Special Guest Presenter: Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, researcher, and instructor whose focus is genealogy, social and women’s history. She holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Psychology and Women’s Studies) & a Master’s degree in Religion. Her published works include 3 books, numerous articles published in magazines and online, & Tracing Female Ancestors (Moorshead Publishing). She is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s magazine, Crossroads. Her writings can also be found on the GenealogyBank blog. She has presented to diverse groups including the National Genealogical Society Conference, Alberta Genealogical Society Conference, Geo-Literary Society, & the Legacy Family Tree Webinar series. Her research projects include Sowerby’s British Mineralogy: Its Influence on Martha Proby and Others in the Scientific Community during the 19th Century for the Gemological Institute of America, as well as genealogical research for the first season of PBS’s Genealogy Roadshow & the Travel Channel’s Follow Your Past. Her current research includes women’s repatriation and citizenship in the 20th century, foodways and community in fundraising cookbooks, & women’s material culture.

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