The Archive Lady: Preserving the Old Family Trunk
Donna in California asks “I still have an old big trunk that I remember since I was a child in the 1950’s. It held our old photos and family artifacts. Is it OK to still keep those items in the trunk? It doesn’t appear to have damaged any of them”.
Donna has a wonderful question that I get asked all the time by genealogists and family historians. Many times we need to look at items in our family artifact collections that are truly historical and help to tell our family’s story, but need to be preserved.
Old trunks have been used during our ancestor’s travels throughout the ages. Whether that trunk is a steamer trunk that they brought over from the old country or it was a trunk purchased to use for that trek out west, they are a true family artifact. Just think of the stories those trunks could tell if they could just talk. Our ancestors used those trunks to pack their clothes, household items, documents and photographs. Many times those trunks held everything our ancestors owned.
The history of the use of trunks for travel goes back centuries, but the styles we see today were manufactured starting in the 18th century and have been produced even up to today. These trunks were very sturdy and made of materials that could withstand rough ship travel and jagged roads the wagons took to the west. Steamer trunks first appeared in the 1870s and were used consistently during the 1880s-1920s. There are many styles and manufactures of trunks that our ancestors used.
Donna has a wonderful trunk that has been handed down to her from her family. She tells me that trunk measures 36 inches in length, 21 inches in width and 23 inches in height. It contains family treasures and artifacts that have been in there for a very long time. She wants to make sure these items remain preserved for generations to come.
The first step to dealing with this trunk full of family records and artifacts is to record and catalog every item. Open each box, folder and bag and make notes of what they contain. This is always the first step we do in an archive setting when we receive boxes of donated items. It is important to catalog everything in the trunk so that it is accounted for. This can serve as the “finding aid” for the items in the trunk.
Next, I would suggest that each item be digitized in some way. The paper and photograph items could be scanned and the 3-deminsional items could be photographed. This way, the artifacts can be enjoyed without handling them as much, which could cause damage.
Donna mentions that everything in the trunk is in good condition and not damaged. That tells me that the family members who owned it before her took very good care of the trunk and its contents. My advice to Donna is to do as little as possible to the contents of the trunk. It might be tempting to take everything apart but in this case it is very important to keep everything intact. I suggest that each item be placed in an archival box or wrapped in archival tissue paper and then placed back in the trunk as they were found.
The most important part of preserving a trunk full of artifacts is how and where it is stored. All records, photographs and artifacts should be stored in a cool, dark and dry place. The temperatures should be as cool as possible and as consistent as possible. Fluctuating temperatures can deteriorate paper and photographs and cause damage. Humidity is the most damaging element to our family records. The humidity in the storage area should be a consistent 35-45 percent. And keep all records out of the direct sunlight.
Old trunks filled with family memories can be a treasure to the family. Preserving that trunk and its contents is vital so that future generations can enjoy the family treasures too.
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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