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A Genealogist In The Archives: Preserving Old Family Letters

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Preserving Old Family Letters

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #20

Preserving Old Family Letters

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 file folder 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!



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Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips From an Archives

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  1. Thanks for the suggestions! I've been working on a letter project from my great-grandfather, and I've scanned all the letters and put them in chronological order. I've been wondering if I should put them into plastic sleeves and a binder, or to leave them in the original box. After reading your article, I think I'm going to buy archival-safe sleeves! Thanks for the help!

    1. EvaAnne, I prefer sleeves and boxes to binders. They just seem more protected to me in those great archival boxes. Thank You for reading my blog!

  2. Great post. I inherited about 60 letters dating from 1887-1920 from my great-grandparents' English relatives. The only damage was that someone (my dad or my grandfather) "collected" the stamps from the envelopes. I've got the letters (unfolded) and envelopes--in archival sleeves and they've been transcribed, fully annotated (personal names, locations, historical events),and printed on 100% rag paper. I'll add (unless I missed it) that transcribing word for word should include misspellings. My English G2grandparents had little formal schooling (although they were prolific letter writers) and spelling was often phonetic (witch for which, for instance). Autocorrect is NOT your friend--proofreading to be sure that the full flavor of the letters is important.

    1. Sounds like you have a true treasure trove of letters! You have done a great job of archiving them and that is wonderful. Old letters is something I do not have in my family records collections, that's probably why I love to work on such collections at the archives. Thank You for reading my blog!

  3. My question is: How do you properly store a letter that is bound together at the top with string? My grandmother's letter written 1919 is 68 pages long and was most likely a note pad she purchased to write about her trip to Canada. Right now it is stored in an archival sleeve in an acid free box. This was not the case with previous generations and there is damage to the outer pages. Would it be beneficial to separate each page with acid free tissue? I am not sure how much stress it would place on the area where it is bound if I do.