Organizing and preserving written letters

The couple who lived in the house next door to me when I was growing up owned their home for more than 50 years. Helen and Richard raised their children there and stayed in the house until they passed away in their late 80s. After they left the house, a younger couple moved in and started raising a family of their own.

On a Saturday afternoon while doing repair work on the house, the new owners discovered a stack of love letters behind a loose plank in a bedroom wall. After reading “To my dearest Helen” at the top of one of the letters, they brought them to my mother so that she might be able to pass them along to Helen and Richard’s children.

My mother was delighted by her new neighbor’s discovery, and snuck a peek at the letter at the top of the pile. The letter spoke of being off at war and the uncertainty that existed in every moment. The letter’s author longed to be with Helen again and missed her dearly. Then, my mother looked at the signature, and the name wasn’t Richard’s.

When my mother passed the stack of letters along to Helen and Richard’s eldest son, she carefully chose her words. The son explained to my mother that Helen had been married to a man who died in World War II. She must not have been able to part with the letters from her first husband, and so she hid them behind the secret panel in her bedroom. The son didn’t know if she had meant to leave them or had forgotten about them over time. But, he was glad that she had kept them so that he could learn about a time in his mother’s life that she had rarely mentioned to him while she was alive.

My mother relayed the story to me minutes after Helen and Richard’s son pulled out of her driveway. We agreed that it was a beautiful story, the kind that movie plots or Nicholas Spark novels are based.

I scan most of the letters and cards I receive from family and friends and keep them only in digital format, but I have never been able to scan and toss the love letters my husband has given to me. They’re currently wrapped with a ribbon and kept in a bureau drawer. The irony is that if my house were ever destroyed, I’d have a backup copy of all of my other correspondence but lose the precious love letters from my husband.

I don’t think after hearing this story from my mother that I will ever be able to toss the love letters from my husband, even if I scan them first. Instead, I’m going to preserve the letters the best way I can:

  1. Scan the letters. In worst case scenario circumstances, a scan is better than nothing.
  2. Lightly dust the letters with a clean, dry cloth.
  3. Order the letters by date.
  4. Insert the letters into archival 8.5 x 11 pocket. The sleeves will help to protect the letters from deterioration.
  5. Store pages in an archival box:

The hidden panel in the bedroom is a romantic gesture, but if I’m going to keep the letters I would rather them be as protected as possible. If you have shunned our advice in the past to scan correspondence, you might want to consider the process I’ve just described as an alternative. I really like the idea of my children being able to see the love letters my husband shared with me.

23 Comments for “Organizing and preserving written letters”

  1. posted by Doreen on

    Also, I would think of adding photo-safe tissue paper between the letters. Over time, just a bit of mosture could cause pages to stick together.

  2. posted by Alanna on

    I am actually doing the very same thing. My grandfather (who I never knew) wrote my grandmother and his mother (strangely enough they are both named Helen too!) throughout his tour during WWII. I am scanning them (after I read them) and I am using the plastic sleeves similar to the ones you suggest as well as plastic boxes that have a three ring binder. I purchased the materials from Light Impressions (www.lightimpressions.com). It is not a cheap endeavor, but I feel that it is important to preserve this small piece of important (family and world) history. My mom just had them in a breadbox. Although, now I am trying to figure out where to put all the archival boxes?! Any ideas??

  3. posted by LivSimpl on

    What a beautiful story! While I’m a geek and love my Gmail account, I feel a bit melancholy when I think of the lack of tangible evidence of our correspondence with one another. Letters and journals are so important to write and keep… thank you for posting this!

    http://www.LivSimpl.com

  4. posted by penguinlady on

    My grandfather was involved in the V-2 Rocket “Rocket Mail” project in the late ’40s, and received a fascinating letter from one of the test flights. The rocket actually exploded, so the envelope is scorched and taped back together. Several of his buddies put comments on the envelope, “Franklin device failed”, “Free fall 65 miles”. After searching high and low for a display vehicle for this neat little piece of history, I found clear acrylic frame that compresses the envelope. I would go the acid-free paper/archival box route, but it has been hidden for probably 60 years and would like to display it, at least for a little while.

  5. posted by An Archivist on

    Hi Erin,

    I love Unclutter and read it every day but this is the first time I’ve been motivated to make a comment.

    I’m an archivist and I help preserve paper materials for a living. The sleeves are expensive and I would hate for your readers to think they are necessary. Depending on the type of paper it might be harmful-if you’ve got a paper that is highly acidic the sleeve can keep that inside encouraging it to cook in its own juices so to speak. If you’ve got a nice high rag content paper then you don’t really need a sleeve. Those kind of sleeves are great for photos that you want to handle without damaging and leaving prints on the photo.

    Paper can be preserved beautifully for generations in simple acid free folders and boxes. There is a nice family archives kit from Gaylord Library and Archives Supply that comes with one box and file folders.

    Much more important than any sleeve is WHERE you put the box. Keeping it somewhere with the most level temperature and humidity possible is important. So no unheated basement or uncooled attic. Top shelf of the closet or under the bed is much better.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. posted by Mary Boston on

    You can always take the scrapbookers approach as well. If your not much of a scrapbooker, you can the minimalist route and get the protective 12×12 sleeves for pages and slip your letters into them. Most sleeves will fit into a simple 3 ring binder or scrapbook. That way you can flip through, reminisce and look at them as well as a vertical folder takes up much less space than a box. YOu can just set it in a bookshelf :) They sell the protective acid free sleeves at most retail stores (Wal-mart, Target, Craft stores, etc)

  7. posted by Tiffany on

    I have a whole binder of old cards and letters that I assembled that way to protect them while I figure out what to do with them. My grandfather writes the neatest letters, and I have several saved from when I was a little girl. And then there are the long, sometimes 10-page letters scrawled on notebook paper from one of my high school friends detailing her adventures in college- she drew cartoons and silly pictures in the margins. I’m a digital devotee, but frequently wish I wrote more letters simply because they’re less ephemeral…

  8. posted by Anastasia on

    This is interesting to me since I have a box of letters from my friends who went off to college in the last few years before email. I hold on to them because they are a rarity in this day and age.

  9. posted by DrJ on

    I’ve managed to get the job of archiving documents and letters from my family dating back to 1840, although most are from World War One. there are literally thousands of letters and postcards.

    I’m archiving the way you suggest, in pockets and archive boxes, but I am inserting every page in it’s own pocket, as most are written on front and back and I want to minimize any more disturbance of the old paper. Also, I’ve scanned them in (I checked with the museum and they said this was ok, just multpile photocopies are bad) and all are getting an archive number based on the date written and the author. These numbers are printed up on a P-touch and stuck to the outside of the pocket (also page1, 2 etc is noted) and also references the scan.

    I’m hoping to be able produce a POD book for the extended family so that the several hundred of us have access to these, without having to endanger the originals.

  10. posted by Filipa on

    DrJ’s comments is really inspiring! I’ve got a big family too, and it would be really fun to collect the old letters and postcards I could find… I would certainly learn a lot about my family!

    I’ve always loved writing and receiving letters, so I’ve got a little and lovely collection of my own too.

    Sometimes I even find myself printing out a particular romantic or touching email from my boyfriend, so I can keep it together with the handwritten letters he sometimes gives me. :)

  11. posted by Shannon on

    Great post! I was considering scanning and discarding all the letters and cards I have saved (they’re all neatly contained in one small box right now), but I can’t help but think that if the writer dies before I do, I would much rather have the tangible letters and not just a copy on my computer screen.

    Thanks for telling me that it’s okay to keep a few things for purely sentimental reasons. :)

  12. posted by Beverly D on

    I’m so glad to hear there are others out there doing this. I have letters written to my grandmother from two of my uncles from before WWII when they were in the CCC’s until after WWII. One went to the Pacific and the other went to Europe. I scanned them, then put in sleeves in date order. They fill three notebooks, and I take them to family reunions. One of the uncles is still living, and he got a real kick out of reading his own letters and reminiscing. There were things in them he had never told his own children about, so that was more conversation. The younger kids are fascinated and understand better that the war was real, not just in their history books. Thanks for the great post, Erin.

  13. posted by Jackie on

    That’s a sweet story, and a good reminder to preserve things like that.

  14. posted by Nancy on

    Another option is to consider donating letters and memorabilia from World War II to The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience. It is housed at Florida State University and includes all the research collected by Tom Brokaw for his book, The Greatest Generation. Here is the web address: http://www.fsu.edu/~ww2/

  15. posted by jgodsey on

    Archivist Erin is right, storing acidic materials in an archival container isn’t gonna stop them from deteriorating. And putting them in a plastic scrapbook sleeve will only speed up the process.

    If they are still intact now, hopefully they will continue to be so. It really wouldn’t hurt to deacidify them with one of the sprays on the market. You can find them in scrapbookstores or online. The buffering agent should be one of these calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate or magnesium oxide these will permeate the surface and make the item acid free and stop further deterioration. If there are any newspaper clippings you DEFINITELY want to deacidify everything.

  16. posted by Chrystine Bennett on

    When you have scanned the items, please be aware that advances in technology can make the format in which you have saved the images obsolete. Think Betamax, videos etc. A number of organizations are now having to pay vast sums of money to have computer records translated from outdated languages and formats. Scanning and then downloading onto a disc is not a ‘finished’ process. You must be aware of updates and re-save the information into new formats.

  17. posted by el on

    Anyone have any suggestions as to how I should store my yearbooks?

  18. posted by O. on

    My father recently discovered, along with a huge amount of old photographs dating from 1900 to 1980, a packet of letters tied together with a ribbon. They were letters from my great-grandfather to my great-grandma, and the majority had been written when he was in a Siberian gulag, and some of them had clearly been smuggled out because they contained information the censor would never have passed.

    I immediately decided I should type them up and translate them into English, but my father took the letters without even asking my grandmother and now he continually makes excuses for why he can’t scan or photocopy the letters and send them to me.

    I just hope he eventually scans them, or else just gives them to me like I asked, because I really want those letters!

  19. posted by Ali MacD from Nova Scotia on

    Awesome post. I will be sharing this link. TY for the information!

  20. posted by Sasha on

    Great post! Recently I started doing this too. I moved across country from the Midwest to California and didn’t want to leave all that old memorabilia behind at my mom’s in fear it would get lost in her basement, so I started the process of scanning all of it. It’s a great idea. I didn’t want to bring it with me and worry about losing it somehow. I’m a little bit paranoid when it comes to thinking about possible apartment fires (which did happen to the one above us already), or an earthquake or something. There are some things that are irreplaceable that I would be very sad if I permanently lost. So everyone, get to scanning and archiving those memories.

  21. posted by Janet on

    I was VERY interested in all of the information on preserving old letters and cards. My question to some of the “experts” is…I understand preserving the paper, but will it also preserve the writing? My son passed away last year at the age of 26…I have letters he wrote to me when he was away from home, but they are written in pencil. I don’t want them to “fade” over the years. Should I scan them?? I’m so desperately trying to keep everything of his….forever. Any suggestions?
    Thank you so much.

  22. posted by Teri on

    Dr J, what is a POD book and how do you go about producing one?

  23. posted by Margaret on

    I have letters from my Grandmother from her sisters & borthers as well as from one of her sisters. There are thousands of them and I am scanning them and then throwing them out since I don’t have room to keep them. I believe that scanning is better than just throwing them away. I have kept the paper letters where there are only a few such as from a batchlor brother as well as several from everyone who wrote. I also have invitations to graduations & weddings that I will keep the paper copies as well as scan. I would like to make a book of the letters, but am not sure how to put it together or what kind of software to use. Any suggestions?

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