LinkConnector Validation

A Genealogist In The Archives

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Old Letters: Preserving a Rare Genealogical Record Source

Stationary, envelopes, postage stamps....what am I describing? Yes, an old fashioned, handwritten letter.

Handwritten letter from Mattie to Miss Alice Reynolds dated October 25, 1903.
Located at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Today most of us write emails, tweets, Facebook posts and texts to communicate with our family and friends. When was the last time you sat down and wrote an actual handwritten letter and mailed it to someone? This type of genealogy record source is what I call a "rare genealogical record source" because while the old letters still exist there are practically no new records of this type being produced.

As genealogists what do we do with these old letters that we have in our family collections? We preserve and archive them!

Before the actual physical archiving starts, I always encourage genealogists to scan or digitize their letters and to transcribe them word for word, that way once you have physically archived them you don't need to handle them as much. Handling them with your hands can cause damage over time if the items are handled a lot.

Original envelope for letter by Miss Mary Carpenter with post mark of December 17, 1889, Erin, Tennessee.
Located at Houston County, Tennessee Archives

When archiving old letters, it is important to keep the original envelope with the letter if it has been saved. There is valuable genealogical information on the envelope that you want to save. My advice is to remove the letter from the envelope, flatten the letter and put both the letter and the envelope into an archival polyester sleeve or into an archival page protector. Store them in an archival box or in a 3-ring binder and keep in a dry, dark place where it is preferably as cold as possible. Heat and humidity can destroy your documents, so it is always a good idea to store your records in a cold environment.

Now, how do you find old letters in archives, libraries or any of our wonderful repositories that hold genealogical records? This task can be a bit difficult but if you are diligent you might just get rewarded.

Most old letters will be found in Manuscript Collections. These collections of records are usually arranged by subject, surname or with titles such as "John Doe Papers 1871-1922". Once you have identified a collection that interests you, then you need to look at the Finding Aid. The finding aid is a document that is produced by the archivist and is an outline of what the collection is all about and will include a list of what is contained in each box. Most of the time the box list is not detailed by what each piece of paper is in each folder but rather it will say "Folder #1: Correspondence 1871-1888". You will have to open the file and read through the correspondence to see if there is anything of interest to your research.

Greeting card with letter sent to Mrs. W.T. Smith of Erin, Tennessee dated 1919.  Notice how small this letter is next to this cell phone. Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Lastly, let's not forget postcards! Our ancestors were avid users of postcards of all kinds. The preservation methods described earlier in this blog can be used with postcards. Also, postcards will be found in Manuscript Collections the same as old letters. Postcards come in all shapes, sizes and kinds. There are even postcards made from photographs. If you are looking for a photograph of your ancestor, just maybe there is one out there that is on a postcard. 

      Postcard to Master Marshall W. Wynns in Erin, Tennessee from L.F.J.
        Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

While the art of letter writing is no longer in fashion, we as genealogists have an opportunity to peer into our ancestors lives by reading their wonderful letters. The information that could be contained on our ancestors letters help us to put "meat on the bones" of the ones we are researching and helps their story come alive!


  1. Enjoyed your article. I blogged last year about letter writing and encouraged my fellow bloggers to take the time and write someone a letter. I have many letters saved my parents wrote me and a couple of my grandparents. My grandparents kept a trunk in the hallway of their home and every piece of correspondence went inside. I discovered that as a young girl when I became interested in stamp collecting. Sadly I salvaged all the stamps, but the letters my mom threw out at that point. What were we thinking - it saddens me that all that family history is gone and its only a memory. I do have a few letters and postcards, even the letters of when their son was killed in the Army. Thanks for reminding us again to write those letters.

    1. Oh Jeanne, I hate to hear about those letters being thrown away but glad to hear that you have a few saved.

  2. Informative article and reminds me to follow up with all of your recommendations. Now to convince my mother to store the trunk of old letters in her house instead of a garage in AZ.
    I was fortunate and found a collection of over 100 letters spanning 5 decades, 6 family members at Yale Divinity school archives.

    1. Kendra, yes all of our records should be stored in the coldest conditions as possible, no sunlight and no humidity. We all can't live in an archives but we can do the best that we can. Thanks for reading my blog.

  3. Thanks for this Melissa! I have so much work to do. I do have old letters and cards I have kept over the years. I think what stops me the most is getting those archival sleeves and boxes. I think once I do that I will be more motivated. My Dad's original WW2 Orders Papers disintegrate once you touch them and so does his bible from 1936. I have to do better. Thanks for this information.