How to Preserve Old Handwritten Letters

I have to admit that I am tremendously envious of those who have a vast treasure trove of family letters written in the hand of grandparents, great grandparents and beyond. This is something that is lacking in the information I have uncovered over the years from my own family but it can be so important.

In my training I have had cause to deal with old handwritten letters in various conditions so I understand how delicate they can be. When a letter has lasted potentially more than a century you never want to be the one that brings about its demise.

In this post we are going to look at how to preserve the content of these letters for years to come. This way we can be sure that future generations can enjoy the ability to read the words and writing of our ancestors.

The Importance of Old Handwritten Letters

Several years ago now as part of a genealogy course I was given the challenge of locating a handwritten letter from a local repository that may contain a certain level of biographical data. There were several requirements for this letter that are not relevant at this time as this is just an illustration of the importance of hand written content.

I found a letter in a small museum library in Pasadena, California and it was mainly focused on the holiday the writer was taking at the time. In fact it was written on the hotel's stationery. The task I was given was to determine who this person was and who their family may have been.

To cut a long story short I was successful in my research and scored well on that specific module. It was all thanks to this somewhat faded and falling apart letter which had been written more than a century ago.

The point I am seeking to make here is that using a letter written by an ancestor you can conceivably piece together enough information to make a family tree breakthrough. Family members are mentioned in letters as are major life events within the family.

We can get a feel for the personality and emotional state of the writer and can almost enjoy a window into our families past. Such letters can often be found locked up in old family trunks and can date back over 100 years.

The Difficulties of Handwritten Letters

One of the first things I had to do in my project regarding this handwritten letter was to decipher what it said. Older handwriting can be at times hard to decipher especially if the ink is faded or the paper is damaged.

Working through the words thoroughly and transcribing the content can be very helpful. In fact understanding the general context of the script can actually help identify hard to read words.

Letters written on paper and poorly stored can very quickly start to break down and become damaged. The older they are the more likely they are to become faded and damaged. This is a big reason we need to physically preserve them.

If you are fortunate enough to discover an old handwritten letter or even better a collection of them then you should start to think about preserving them.

How to Preserve Handwritten Letters

Do you ever wonder why people working with very old documents are often wearing those white gloves? The answer is simple, over time documents become delicate and more at risk of being damaged. Our hands, no matter how clean, can still be sweaty and slightly oily, both of which can quickly add to the deterioration of the paper.

The white gloves protect the paper and the words written on them from our hands thus extending their life. This is of course often pertaining very old books and the like which are priceless but we can also still take steps to protect our old family letters.

What You Need

Below you will find a list of the supplies you need to get in order to protect your families historic correspondences.

  • Archival acid-free sheet protectors
  • Archival document sleeves
  • Archival folders
  • Archival document boxes
  • Binders
  • Printer & paper
  • Scanner or a hi-resolution camera
  • Digital backup storage such as USB drive, computer or cloud storage

You will note the term acid-free is very important when it comes to preserving old documents. You don’t want to risk acidic conditions causing further damage to the letters.

It should be noted that some of the above materials are not cheap but when it comes to preserving these letters cheap options will not be of much use.

Scan Your Letters First

As great as it is to have the original physical copy of a letter it is unwise just to rest on the laurels of this. We want to preserve the letter obviously but also we need to back it up with digital images. You will need plenty of room to work and either a scanner or a high-resolution camera.

Using clean hands and if you have them, document handling gloves, carefully remove the letter from any envelope and gently unfold it. Either take a picture or if the letter is robust enough put it on a scanner to get a digital image. Correctly label the digital images you take so you can easily find them later.

Once the letter and envelope have both been digitally imaged and saved, place them both safely in an archival sleeve. Do not refold the letter as this will cause stress on the fold points and can create further damage.

The letter should never again leave this archival sleeve; it has become its forever home and in this sleeve it will remain protected.

Store the Letters in Groups

If you are fortunate enough to have a collection of letters you may want to develop a grouping system by which to store them. This may be based on who wrote them, age, content or any other common factor that makes sense.

You can then store the individual archival sleeves in archival folders. This can help you find the letters more quickly if you want to view them at a later date. If you end up with enough folders you might want to consider archival document boxes to give them an extra level of protection.

It is important to store these now protected letters in safe conditions. This means nowhere humid or where they are at risk from flooding or burst pipes. Somewhere dry and out of direct sunlight is great, preferably on the upper floors of the building. Avoid basements and garages as they can easily flood.

Create an Index

This doesn’t really make sense unless you have a large collection of letters but if you do then it may be necessary. Think along the lines of passing these letters off in the future to the next generation of family genealogists.

Create an index for your stored and protected letters so that someone can come along behind you and locate the relevant letters. This will save them going through the whole collection and unnecessarily opening the wrong archival sleeves.

Create a Physical Backup

This step is completely optional but I would suggest you do it. Having taken scans or photos of the letters and envelopes consider printing them out. You can then keep these printouts in a binder which you can index.

This is great if you want to take a glance at the document but not actually access the originals. It is handy for making transcriptions as long as the picture and scan quality was good enough. I remember having to get the library to scan the letter I used for my genealogy course and send that to me as it belonged to their collection.

Conclusion

Protecting your old handwritten letters is not a difficult process but it does take care and organizational skills. Remember you can’t undo damage that has already occurred unless you are a document restoration specialist.

The point of this is to prevent further damage or wear and tear on the letters and preserve the letters for future generations. In the process you will backup the documents with scans, pictures and transcriptions.

This level of care will help you keep these letters safe for future generations so they too can enjoy the stories of the family that occurred over a century ago.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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