Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the armed forces. There are also countless e-mails being written by active duty troops serving in countries throughout the world right now. These letters (which, from here on, includes e-mails) are an irreplaceable record of the sacrifices made by military personnel and their families.
Many of these letters are also extremely significant, offering eyewitness accounts of famous battles, historic events, or encounters with prominent military leaders. But even the more personal correspondences, such as heartfelt expressions of affection or words of support and encouragement between separated loved ones, offer valuable insight into the wartime experience, and they also need to be preserved.
Tragically, many of these correspondences are being thrown away, lost, or irreparably damaged or—if they are e-mails—deleted. Saving these letters is not difficult, and it is an excellent way to learn about your family's heritage and this nation's history. Different letters need to be cared for in different ways, and it may not be possible to follow all of the recommendations listed below, but the basic suggestions presented here should help you begin the process of preserving your wartime letters.
Although the information below is under copyright, we encourage you to share and distribute it, so long as it is not used for any commercial or for-profit purposes. Special thanks goes to Linda Edquist, one of the nation's foremost archivists, who reviewed this material and offered valuable suggestions.
If you are receiving e-mails from a friend or loved one who is currently deployed overseas, we recommend that, along with saving them on your computer, you print out every message you receive and save the "hard copies" chronologically. It is not enough to save them on your computer, as the file might crash and the information inside could become irretrievable. (Also, if the file becomes too large, you might become discouraged at a later date by the amount of work it would require to go through all of the e-mails that have been saved. Establishing a routine of printing out each e-mail when it comes in is much easier over the long-term.) Troops are very modest about what they write and often do not think that their messages are significant. But even their most seemingly "mundane" e-mails might offer some small insight into what they are going through while far from home.
Regarding original handwritten or typed letters, one of the best ways of keeping them in mint condition is to handle them as little as possible. For example:
(Over time, paper clips will leave rust marks and indentations, post-it notes and rubber bands may cause discoloration and/or tear the paper, and the laminating process is irreversible and will ultimately ruin the paper.)
Although some professionals allow for the use of plastic paperclips, the Legacy Project does not encourage this. We also strongly discourage using any form of adhesive tape, even if it is marked "document safe" and/or "acid-free." The adhesive will discolor the paper and may damage it in other ways. If you have already taped, laminated, or stapled your letters, do not attempt to undo what has already been done. This may only cause even more damage.
Some people throw out the envelopes in which the letters were sent, but these should be saved. They might contain important information such as dates and addresses, and troops sometimes embellish envelopes with sketches or write codes or additional short messages on them.
It is also best not to write on the letter or their envelopes. Instead, mark and/or label the container in which you are storing the materials. (For more information on this, please see "Storing & Displaying Your Letters" below.) It is a good idea to record the dates the letters were written, biographical details about the person who wrote and/or received the letters, as well as other essential information. Identifying the letters will help other family members, who may find them at a later date, recognize immediately that these are valuable memorabilia and not just a "box of old letters" to be thrown away.
Although the Legacy Project recommends that you do not write directly on the letters, some professional archivists allow it—but only if it is done lightly with a No. 2 pencil. It is best to write on the back or in the margins or on the envelope. If you need to erase something you've written (and, again, it is preferable not to do so), use only a white vinyl eraser. Never use a pen, and never put stickers or labels directly on the letters.
If you need to repair or restore your letters, consider contacting a professional conservator. To find a conservator near you, contact:
The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
1717 K St., NW, Suite 200
Washington, DC 20006-5342
http://aic.stanford.edu (and then, when the home page appears, click on: "AIC's Guide to Conservation Services")
Make sure to keep your letters in a place where temperature, humidity, and circulation are all moderate and constant. If the air is too humid, the letters will deteriorate and possibly develop mold. If the air is too dry, the letters will become brittle and fall apart.
Letters should be stored in temperatures around 70º or less and in relative humidity of approximately 40-50%. (Some archivists recommend a cooler—though not cold—temperature, if possible.) Avoid keeping your letters in attics, storage sheds, garages, or other poorly insulated areas where the temperature and/or environmental conditions fluctuate dramatically. Keep your letters in areas safe from water, heat, light, dust, grime, and pests. Letters should not be stored on the floor (where flooding can ruin them), near food (which attracts insects and rodents), under pipes, or next to radiators or heating vents. Interior closets are often an ideal place to store letters, so long as the letters are kept in an archive-safe container and not stacked under other items. It is best to store your letters flat (unless you have old, brittle letters that might "break" if unfolded), and it is important to check the materials occasionally to make certain no unexpected or gradual damage is occurring.
Do not mix letters with newspapers (for example, old clippings announcing the end of the war or some other momentous event), which are highly acidic and may stain your letters.
If you have a letter that is of particular value—such as a first hand account of a historic event or a letter by a famous military leader—you might want to consider keeping it in a safety deposit box. Just make certain that other family members know where the letter is stored and that the letter is accessible. It is understandable that you might want to showcase the letter, but please keep in mind that sunlight and even household lamps will fade letters relatively quickly, and the damage is irreversible. Instead of framing or mounting an original letter, consider making a good color photocopy or scan of the letter and displaying that instead. (Although it will not cause significant light damage to letters if you make duplicates on a copier machine a few times, doing so excessively will fade the letters. It is also best not to duplicate a letter if it is so fragile that unfolding it and placing it flat on a copying machine will cause the paper to tear.)
You might also want to consider transcribing your letters if they are handwritten. It makes them easier to read, and you will then have an available copy to share with family members and others interested in history.
Do not display or store your letters in scrapbooks with adhesive (sometimes called "magnetic") pages, even it these items are advertised for long-term archiving. Anything with a sticky surface will ultimately damage your letters. Ideally, you should store your letters in archival materials. What you use will depend on whether you have only a few letters or stacks of them. Although many office supply stores stock products labeled "preservation safe" or "museum quality," these terms are not uniform and the items may, in the long run, actually damage your letters. There are many mail order companies that specialize in archival material, including those listed below.
Please note: The following contact information is provided free as a public service, and the Legacy Project is not affiliated with the for-profit companies listed below. If you wish to purchase supplies from these companies, we recommend that you request additional information directly from the companies themselves. (Many of these companies also provide detailed brochures and hand-outs on letter preservation.)
PO Box 1413
Des Moines, IA 50306-1413
Conservation Resources International, L. L. C.
5532 Port Royal Rd.
Springfield, VA 22151
PO Box 4901
Syracuse, NY 13221-4901
The Hollinger Corp.
PO Box 8360
Fredericksburg, VA 22404
PO Box 787
Brea, CA 92822-0787
Metal Edge, Inc.
6340 Bandini Blvd.
Commerce, CA 90040
PO Box 101
Holyoke, MA 01041-5514
All material ©Copyright The Legacy Project, 2005