The Archive Lady: How to Preserve Civil War Letters?

The Archive Lady: How to Preserve Civil War Letters?

Tammy from Tennessee recently contacted me through Facebook with the following question: “My Dad has some letters written during the Civil War from some of his family. The collection also includes a lock of hair that a girl sent to her soldier boyfriend. What is the best way to preserve them?”

Original handwritten letters are some of the most precious family documents that a genealogist can have in their records collections. Writing letters has become an almost extinct form of communication and all the more reason why we need to preserve the ones that have survived. Preserving handwritten letters is fairly simple and can be accomplished by any genealogist. Here are five steps to archiving letters:

1. Take each letter out of its envelope. As an archivist, I am asked all the time if letters should stay in their envelopes or be removed. My answer is always to remove letters from their envelopes. The act of taking letters in and out of envelopes and unfolding and folding will damage the letters. Once the letters have been removed, be sure that to keep the envelopes and letters together. Use plastic paper clips to clip the envelope to the letter. NEVER USE METAL PAPER CLIPS!

Letters and envelopes from the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Letters and envelopes from the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

2. Scan or digitize the letters and envelopes. Digitizing the letters will preserve them electronically in the event the originals are damaged or destroyed. Digitization will also allow you to view the letters on a computer instead of continually handling the originals which will cause damage to the letters.

3. Purchase archival sleeves that have passed the P.A.T. (Photographic Activity Test). The sleeves you want to obtain will include names such as Mylar, Polypropylene or Polyester. Be sure to get sleeves that fit your letters comfortably and leaves about a 1/4 inch space on each side. Don’t stuff the letters in the sleeves and don’t leave too much room in the sleeves which could cause damage. Place each letter and envelope in the archival sleeves. Only place one letter and one envelope in each sleeve. Make sure to fold down the envelope flap onto itself. The sticky part of the flap contains chemicals that over time will damage the letter if they touch.

One letter and envelope in archival sleeve

One letter and envelope in archival sleeve

4. Purchase archival file folders that have passed the P.A.T. to file the letters. Put the archival sleeves that contain the letters in a file folder. I suggest that no more than ten letters be put in one file folder. If the folder is overstuffed, it could cause damage to the letters. Be sure to label the file folders. How you label your files is entirely up to you. Choose a method that works best for you and be consistent. Storing the folders is straightforward; you could use archival boxes or a filing cabinet.

Letters in file folders and stored in archival box.

Letters in file folders and stored in archival box.

5. Store the archival boxes in a cool, dry and humid free area away from sunlight. Ideal archival storage can be difficult to achieve, do the best you can with what you have available to you. A closet in the middle of the house with no exterior walls would be ideal.

Now let’s address the lock of hair that was mentioned in the question. Preserving a lock of hair is just as easy to accomplish as the letters. The number one enemy of hair is bugs. If you can keep the bugs away, the lock of hair should last forever. You will only need two items to complete this task, a small box with a lid and archival tissue paper. The box does not need to be archival as long as you use archival tissue paper. Place a piece of archival tissue paper in the box, leaving enough that will fold over to cover the lock of hair once placed in the box. Put the lock of hair in the tissue paper that is in the box. Fold the excess tissue paper over the lock of hair so that it is completely covered. Place the lid on the box. Finally, you will want to label the box with information about the lock of hair. You should include the name of the person it belongs to, the date it was received and any additional pertinent information to document the lock of hair. Store in a place where it is cool, dry and away from sunlight. 

Lock of hair with archival tissue paper in box.

Lock of hair with archival tissue paper in box.

I hope these guidelines to preserve old letters and locks of hair inspire you to preserve what you have in your genealogy records collections. Preserve your records today so that our descendants can enjoy them in the future!

The archival materials I recommend can be purchases through Amazon.com:

If you would like more information on how to preserve your old family letters, check out my Legacy Family Tree Webinar Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist http://legacy.familytreewebinars.com/?aid=1168

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If you have a question about researching in archives or records preservation for The Archive Lady, send an email with your question to: melissabarker20@hotmail.com

Melissa Barker - The Archive LadyMelissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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©Copyright 2016 Melissa Barker. All Rights Reserved

Photo credits: All photos are property of the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

About the Author

Melissa Barker
Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.