What to do with old letters

My wife and I have been together since high school. Yes, we’re high school sweethearts and we’ve now been with each other for more than half our lives. Over the years, we wrote each other quite a few letters. My wife studied in France for two semesters and we attended colleges that were quite far from each other. And, this all took place before e-mail had become popular.

We recently came across two shoe boxes full of old letters we wrote to each other during our college years and we were at a loss as to what to do with all of them. Most of them are quite silly and pointless, but there are some letters that actually convey some long distance heartache. So, rather than pitching all of them in the garbage, we went through quite a few of them and tried to narrow down the collection to something more reasonable. After a quick scan of hundreds of letters, we pared the collection to a much more reasonable collection of twenty. Now, instead of two shoe boxes full, we have all twenty wrapped into a little bundle with ribbon. My wife made them look very nice and now our daughter can eventually read these letters when she is older (a lot older in some cases).

We also considered scanning some of the letters, but my wife decided against that. For those of you who have a ton of old letters in your possession, you may want to think about getting rid of the majority of your collection. Surely they aren’t all gems.

35 Comments for “What to do with old letters”

  1. posted by Randy Peterman on

    My wife and I are also high school sweethearts and about two years away from knowing one another for half of our lives. I whittled our letters down to a small box of ‘the best’ and threw in a letter from an old friend that was a reality check. I know exactly where they are and they’ll stay there until we want to re-read them or laugh at our youthful zeal and throw them out. We uncluttered the letters long ago, but I wish we had uncluttered everything else, just as long ago.

  2. posted by J. Lynne on

    I saw a very nicely done and creative table that had old love letters placed between the two pieces of glass that made the top. The table was part of a parlor/tea room and it had a very sentimental touch to it. Not only was it a clever way to store them but a nice reminder of the older couple’s love for each other. I thought it was very sweet.

  3. posted by j.tucker on

    i put all letters i want to save in a scrap book with cleaer plastic sleeves!

  4. posted by j.tucker on

    i put all letters i want to save in a scrap book with clear plastic sleeves!

  5. posted by Gette on

    I plan on scrapbooking mine. I’m also thinking of scanning them to minimise handling of actual letters. I see why some people won’t want to do this – it’s not the same in digital. However, I figured it’ll help me decide if I’ll miss the actual letters that much.

  6. posted by dahlia on

    related but not identical task: i started keeping a journal in third grade. i’m 37 now and kept one until a couple years ago. lately i’ve been shredding them. it’s amazing and liberating! i can only do a couple of notebooks every couple of weeks, as the process of flipping through to see if i’m ready to let it go (so far i saved one chunk of freshman year of college and everything else has been toss-worthy) is rather intense. so much to absorb! i sit and slowly feed pages to the shredder and scan the next page as the current one shreds. i’ve been doing this on sunday mornings before my husband wakes, in the quiet house. it feels so light! i think the fact that i don’t have children makes it easier to let go, but oh oh oh the joy of it!

  7. posted by ABM on

    Why not frame and hang them? I think they could make for some excellent art with a nifty frame and matte.

  8. posted by Tanna on

    I think it is great to hold on to some of your favorites and get creative on ways to store them. With the digital age, soon it will be very rare to be able to have letters like that to pass on to your kids. My husband and I haven’t been married as long as some of those that have commented. We are a macth.com couple and we have always emailed our “love letters”. I have them saved, but there is something special about being able to hold that letter in your hand.

  9. posted by Andamom on

    I am elated that you brought up this topic! One of my next tasks is to go through our cards and mementos… I have had the time to do scrapbooking like I had intended — and there is an ever growing pile of sentimental ‘crap’.

    Seriously, I have only one real spot where things accumulate and this is it. None of it has any true value — just what I have been too sentimental about to toss — like: congratulatory cards for my childrens’ births, their birthday cards, random other cards that my daughter has made me, and so on. Scanning these items remove their texture, smells, and so on. I like to go through them every once in awhile and reminisce.

    Of course, I recently went through my daughter’s baby clothes that I had been saving in the event that I ever had another girl and realized that time isn’t kind to all things. So, I figure that eventually many of these things will eventually cause me to do some major purging…

  10. posted by dizawndra on

    how about the fire?

  11. posted by Jen on

    My gut instinct is that getting rid of personal letters (with some exceptions) and old journals is a bad idea. You don’t know what the future will bring, and years from now you may regret destroying these valuable memories.

    My Mom’s family moved overseas shortly after WW2. Because space was limited, my grandparents destroyed the letters that they wrote to one another while he was in Europe during WW2. My grandfather died about 40 years ago and my Grandmother’s now in her 90s. To this day she regrets destroying those letters, which were a very tangible memento of the man she loved and lost.

    Just this morning I was reading an article about a man who found the diary his mother kept when she was 17 years old. His Mom died when he was 13 (he’s now an adult), so this diary has given him tremendous insight into his mother’s life. He expressed regret at being unable to locate some other diaries that he believes she kept. His blog is here http://www.dhdd.net/dorothy/1945/today.html

  12. posted by allen on

    I really must say i don’t like this idea. These are the things that A) your children/dependents will look back on, be able to see your love, to see your lives, &c. B) These are also the kind of thing that have allowed historians to inform us better about lives hundreds of years ago. Were those letters REALLY taking up so much space that that’s worth it? If so, then scanning them would actually be a good idea.

    I’m sorry, but on this one i think you’ve missed the mark.

  13. posted by thisisbeth on

    Actually, I agree with the decision to keep the “best” or favorites and get rid of the rest. We can’t save everything, so keeping the highlights is a great idea. I doubt anyone would read the complete diaries of thisisbeth, but if I managed to pull out some of my favorite pieces, it would be much more accessible to the future. There simply isn’t time for someone to read the complete works.

    It’s like mothers will pull out their favorite pieces their little kindergartener made, and toss the rest.

  14. posted by kylie on

    I was actually going to go for the scrapbook with clear pages idea, too. That way you could put them on a bookshelf where they can be easily pulled down and flipped through. They would last longer without being handled all the time, and your children could someday be given the book(s). You could also add or subtract from the collection just by pulling a letter out of its sleeve.

  15. posted by Steve on

    I move around a lot, and during one move decided to part with the letters from my best friend and confidant.

    Without a doubt, the single worst thing I ever did to reduce clutter. Right now, I would give anything to recover those letters.

  16. posted by machei on

    Yeah, this is one of those things that just screams with wrongness for me. There’s some things that take precedent over clutter. I don’t really consider items like this clutter, anyway. And the idea of shredding my journals is pretty much sacrilege to me. Very few things mean more to me than the interactions I share with those I love. The letters are a fraction of that made manifest. Even if they take up a box, that’s one box I’m keeping.

  17. posted by brad on

    I also dissent. I’ve got a couple of shoe boxes of letters that my parents and grandparents wrote to each other. That’s not silliness, and to the surviving relatives, there is no “best”. It is the stuff of life. Even the most inane references and comments about what they were doing that day is valuable, in my eyes.

    Fine, get rid of old clothes and broken lamps. But throwing away all or even some of a couple of boxes of letters is simply presumptuous and cruel to the next generation (unless one of those letters shows your complicity in the Kennedy Assassination or something).

  18. posted by Mel on

    I agree that winnowing down the supply of letters and cards makes sense so you save the stuff that is really worth reading and keeping. But after my parents died, I was privileged to be left my mother’s journals from a particularly difficult period of her life and our family’s as well as the letters she and my dad wrote when he was in WWII, and some other gems. I could get rid of a lot of things, but these are pieces of their past — which I hope to turn into a memoir or something someday. My journals may not be that interesting, but I still love them. I am sad I got rid of the ones from my teenage years! It would be nice, for my daughter’s sake, to remember what that was like.

  19. posted by jt in the Army on

    I have a few boxes marked “Momentos” and “Memories”… These boxes have just sat around, some for almost a decade, without any practical use. Before I left for active duty I sorted some of these boxes. As I move into my new apt EVERYTHING- books, kitchen items, clothes, “momentos”- everything is being decluttered.

  20. posted by JenniferM on

    I have to disagree with this purge. My parents were high school sweethearts but divorced when I was young. Fast-forward 25 years to two years ago, when my mother divorced her second husband and through some unusual circumstances was able to reconnect with my dad while he was going through cancer treatment. When he died a few months later it seemed like she had been widowed. She has e-mailed me and my sister many memories since then, taken us on walks down memory lane–literally!–and shared so much of what he was like when they were young. She got rid of his letters long ago (when they were divorced, not for uncluttering purposes) and regrets it so much now. Although I can certainly understand why she threw their mementoes away back then, I wish she had given some thought to the future.

    There have been moments in my life wherein I’ve kept journals and/or written someone special on a daily basis. Knowing what I know now, I’m not sure these neatly tied little bundles are things I could ever give up, even if these people are no longer part of my life. They are windows into my psyche and the relationships that were important to me. My kids will probably be interested in them someday.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that while old letters may seem silly to hang on to right now, they could very well be priceless treasures to someone else years from now.

  21. posted by Dana on

    I don’t think it’s a big deal if you don’t have kids. My husband and I are not having children, and it’s very freeing to toss things without worrying about whether someone would want them after I’m gone.

  22. posted by cate on

    What a lovely idea! I, too, save all of the old memory letters, esp. cards…from loved ones and my kids………I have a pretty hat box I bought (cheap) at a Value City store….It is decorative, yet, I can store all of my memory letters,photos, and cards from my kids and friends in the pretty box. I placed it on my cedar chest at the bottom of my bed………..it looks nice, yet, I can open it when I am feeling down/nostalgic and look at them and read them as a “pick me up”…..

  23. posted by STL Mom on

    Last winter, I helped my mom clean out my grandparents’ apartment. I found a stack of letters I had sent them years ago. According to the first letter, my Christmas present that year was a promise to write to them every month for a year – and there were the twelve letters. I had completely forgotten about these letters and was touched that my grandparents, who I had always considered unsentimental, had kept them. It was great fun to read them and I’m so glad to have had the chance.
    However, anyone keeping paperwork from their conferences or newsletters from their clubs – your grandchildren will toss those in an instant!

  24. posted by Serene and Not Herd on

    “Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.” Mary Schmich, June 1, 1997 – Chicago Tribune

    This is my technique. Rather than decide which ones are valuable enough to keep, I keep them all, and get rid of stuff that I really don’t need, and doesn’t have personal historical value.

    Of even more importance is my collection of letters from my grandmother, the matriarch and herald of my family. To my knowledge, I have almost every one she’s written me since I was about 9 years old. The 22yo collection is in fact, a massive database of personal family history. Births, deaths, marriages, graduations, etc.

  25. posted by Chuck Stuart on

    My wife and I are 80, and have boxes of old family letters dating from the 1880’s up through the 1950’s. We ned to get rid of them, and our children do NOT want them. Any ideas from anyone? I’ve searched the internet for collectors of such items, but have found none. I did donate some WWII letters to a project in Florida that collects historic memorabilia from WWII. The rest are slated for the trash unless I can find someone who wants them.
    Chuck Stuart
    Worcester, MA
    P.S. Photographs, too.

  26. posted by Another Deb on

    I have discovered the joys and challenges of genealogy this year and I would dearly love to find a bundle of letters describing my ancesters’ daily lives. I live 1000 miles away from the old home place so anything I find now will have been archived by someone else.

    The county historical libraries and genealogical societies would welcome some of the old stuff. Chuck Stuart, I hope you have found a home for the family treasures!

  27. posted by ClintJCL on

    I think a better solution would be to scan them all in and have them organized. Even better, if you typed up the text of the letters, they could become searchable. The originals can be thrown away (or attic’ed for sentimental-but-zero-space-taking purposes).

  28. posted by Rue on

    Once again, the debate of what constitutes “clutter” rears its ugly head! 😛 But IMO this isn’t an argument about clutter versus non-clutter; it’s more of a “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” thing. Some people don’t care about letters and sentimental things, some do.

    If you have children or relatives who might want mementos such as this, or if you just can’t bear to toss them, then save them. Find a pretty box (such as the hat box that someone mentioned) and toss them in. Bingo! You have them stored, and you can use the pretty box as decoration in a room.

    If you are attached to the sentiment of the letters but not to the pieces of paper, scan them all in and toss them! You can always save a couple to frame for art, put in scrapbooks, etc.

  29. posted by Karryn on

    Funny, but I’m married to my university sweetheart – and I also buggered off to France during the relationship (pre-Email). For our first wedding anniversary, I took the letters and postcards and made them into a beautiful book. I bought a handmade book – the most beautiful I could find- from an artist who works on the little island where were married. I presented this book to my husband and it remains one of our most prized possessions. Now, when we move on, our daughters will have something beautiful to look at and cherish, rather than having to sift out the dross. I’ve already done it.

  30. posted by Karryn on

    Oh, and another tip: all the pretty cards people gave us for our wedding were, well, pretty. But did we ever sit down and look at them. Never. So I made a collage of them, had it matted and framed and now it hangs in our bedroom where we see the insides of the cards (the personal wishes are what counts really) every day.

  31. posted by Lapsed Librarian on

    I recently came across letters I had saved from a couple of friends who had studied abroad during college (about 20 years ago). The letters described their lives in a different country, places they visited, etc. So I gave each of them their letters, so they could have a record of their experiences in their own words.

    Similarly, when clearing out my grandma’s house after she died, I came across bundles of letters she had saved from each of her grandchildren. I gave everyone the letters they had sent. I haven’t actually read mine yet, but I like the idea of having this record of my life in my own words from such a young age. One of these days, I’ll read them!

  32. posted by Margaret Golden on

    Last year I went through a LARGE box of letters dating back to first grade. I’m 45 years old, so this was a daunting task! I sent a stack of letters to a long-lost high school friend, and surprisingly, he also had kept a stack of letters and “notes” I had sent him during high school. We got such a kick out of reading these and sparked a new friendship between us. Similarly, I sent an old girlfriend letters she sent me when she went to Europe as a young girl. She was able–at last–to trace her alcohol dependency and abusive behavior to a terrible thing that had happened to her while abroad–something she had totally blocked out and had no memory of. The letters and memorobilia we keep may not always be for ourselves…

  33. posted by schism.ca » Blog Archive » Love letters on

    […] keep one’s old love letters, (lord knows one of my fav sites once rubbed me the wrong way by suggesting the exact opposite) doing so seems like the right thing to do for […]

  34. posted by Pamela on

    I know I come very late commenting to this post, but if you haven’t destroyed your letters yet, consider giving them to your municipal archives. In Toronto, the City of Toronto Archives are looking for old letters, journals, etc to track how the city and it’s neighborhoods have changed and developed over the years. There is a lot of documentation that is considered “old” but photos, letters, etc that are 20-40 years old are very rare. With the digital age, in 50 years there is a real fear that all this memorabilia will be permanently lost and a huge gap in hour city’s history will be created. You may not think these letters are important, but to an archivist and future generations, they are gold.

  35. posted by Pamela on

    If you are worried that you don’t want anyone you know to see the letters, the archivist will seal them for 70 years (it’s the law here in Canada) so there’s a good chance no one who is alive will be affected when the letters are finally made public. Talk to them. The worst they can say is no.

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