The Archive Lady: Preserving a Civil War Family Heirloom
Connie from Pennsylvania asks “I have a leather wallet containing a bullet that is from the Civil War. It was in my husband’s great-grandfather’s breast pocket when he was shot. What would be the best method to protect this item?”
Connie has sent in a wonderful question about a very unique family heirloom. While many of us have ancestors that fought in the Civil War, I am sure there are not very many of us that have a wallet with a bullet in it. But many of us might have leather wallets that belonged to our ancestors that we would like to preserve.
Preserving Leather Heirlooms
Leather is made from cured animal hide and this materials may comprise three types:
- Non-tanned leathers including items such as rawhide, parchment and vellum.
- Semi-tanned leathers including smoke-tanned or brain-tanned items.
- Fully-tanned leathers are tanned with plant extracts or with salts.
The purpose of tanning an animal hide is to make it resistant to rotting as well as to make it usable.
Leather goods are very susceptible to damage by moisture and humidity. Leather readily absorbs and retains moisture and is capable of being damaged by moisture loss and absorption. Environmental control is the most important aspect of preservation of leather goods like Connie’s wallet. Leather should be stored in a place where the relative humidity is between 35% and 70%. If the humidity level is less than 35%, the leather will crack if handled. If the humidity level is above 70%, the leather can start to grow mold on the surface which is very damaging.
Temperatures are also another important environmental factor requiring attention and regulation where the leather is stored. An optimal temperature for storing leather is 68°F or 20°C. Temperatures above 68°F can dry out the leather which causes deterioration to occur much faster.
In most cases, archival tissue paper and an archival box is sufficient for storing leather items. In Connie’s case, an unbuffered archival box that fits the wallet as closely as possible is suggested and unbuffered archival tissue paper to put in the box and cover the wallet. It is important to use unbuffered archival materials with leather artifacts because there is no calcium carbonate or other alkaline substances present in the unbuffered materials. This type of substance, which is present in the buffered archival materials, can cause damage to leather and other protein based artifacts. For more information, please see my blog post Buffered vs. Unbuffered, What’s the Difference? at my blog A Genealogist in the Archives http://agenealogistinthearchives.blogspot.com/2017/06/buffered-vs-unbuffered-what-is.html
Loosely wrap the leather wallet in the tissue paper and lay in the box. If the wallet is moving around in the box, crumple up tissue paper and put around the wallet so that it doesn’t move. The movement in the box could cause damage to the artifact. Store the box in a cool, dark and dry place using the humidity and temperature suggestions.
Include a Narrative
I would highly encourage everyone to put a note or narrative in a box to tell the story of that artifact. Many times, items like this wallet can be misplaced or found after someone has died. If this happens, the story of the item, who it belonged to and any other information that adds to the story of the piece needs to be handed down to future descendants. Hopefully, if they know the story, they will be more interested in keeping the item and continue the preservation for their children and grandchildren.
Handle Leather Heirlooms with Care
Lastly, handling leather artifacts should be done sparingly. I would suggest taking very good photos of the object from all angles and then archive it away. When handling leather goods, it is very important to wear cotton or nitrate gloves. The dirt, oil and perspiration on our hands can cause damage to leather.
Like our family documents and photographs, our family artifacts like a Civil War wallet also need our special preservation attention so they can be enjoyed by the next generations.
Archival Material Websites
Here is a listing of online archival materials stores. Archival tissue paper and boxes can be purchased at any of the following online archival stores. They all have online catalogs and paper catalogs that can be sent to your home. Also, be sure to sign up for email notifications because they periodically have sales and will send out email notifications.
- Gaylord Archival
- Hollinger Metal Edge
- University Products
- Archival Products
- Light Impressions
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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.
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