War Letters International
Tucked away in homes throughout the world are millions of letters that offer unique insight into warfare and its effect on those who experience it firsthand. Many of these letters are historically significant, offering eyewitness accounts of famous battles or encounters with prominent military leaders. But even the more personal correspondence, especially love letters written wartime, humanize the men and women in uniform and remind us of the individual sacrifices they have made.
Unfortunately, many of these war letters are being thrown away, lost, or damaged. Safeguarding these letters is not difficult, and it is an excellent way to learn about both family and world 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 following basic suggestions should help anyone interested in preserving their letters. (Although this information below is under copyright, it may be shared so long as credit is given and the information is not used for any commercial or for-profit purposes.)
One of the most important ways to keep letters in mint condition is to handle them as little as possible.
- do not staple, paper clip, glue, or laminate old letters
- do not put post-it notes on them
- do not secure them with rubber bands
- do not write on them
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 letter.
Although some professionals allow for the use of plastic paperclips, the Legacy Project does not encourage it. 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 the letters have already been taped, laminated, or stapled, do not attempt to undo what has already been done. This may only cause more damage.
Instead of writing directly on the letters or their envelopes, it is best to mark and/or label the container in which the materials are stored. (For more information on this, please see "Storing & Displaying Letters" below.) It is a good idea to record the dates the letters were written, biographical information 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 not writing directly on the letters, professional archivists allow it—but only if it is done lightly with a No. 2 pencil. Never use a pen, and never put stickers or labels directly on the letters.Storing & Displaying Letters
Make sure to keep 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 70° or less and in relative humidity of approximately 40-50%. Some archivists recommend a cooler—though not cold—temperature, if possible. It is important, however, that the temperature does not fluctuate dramatically. Avoid keeping letters in attics, storage sheds, garages, or other poorly insulated areas where environmental conditions fluctuate dramatically.
Keep 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.
Do not put letters on top of or next to newspaper (for example, old clippings announcing the end of the war or some other momentous event), which is highly acidic and may stain the letters.
For letters that seem particularly valuable—such as firsthand accounts of historic events or letters by famous military leaders—it might be best to keep them in a safety deposit box. Just make certain that other family members know where the letters are stored and how to access them.
Many people understandably want to showcase their correspondence, especially if they have something historically or personally significant. But sunlight and even household lamps will fade letters relatively quickly, and the damage is irreversible. Instead of framing or mounting letters, consider making a good color copy of the letter and displaying that instead. (Although it will not cause significant light damage to letters if they are duplicated 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. It might be worthwile to consider transcribing the letters if they are handwritten. It makes them easier to read, and there will be an available copy to share with family members and other loved ones. )
Do not display or store letters in scrapbooks with adhesive (sometimes called "magnetic") pages. Anything with a sticky surface will ultimately damage letters.
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 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.
Ideally, it is also best to store letters in archival material, such as “acid-free” folders and boxes. Although many office supply stores stock products labeled "preservation safe" or "museum quality," these terms are not uniform and the materials may, in the long run, actually ruin old letters.
A special note about e-mails: The Legacy Project strongly encourages individuals who have received e-mails from military personnel to print them out and store them with the same care as handwritten letters. E-mails saved only on computers can be accidentally deleted or become irretrievable over time.
For more information concerning preserving wartime correspondence, please consult with a professional conservator or archivist.
©2003 The Legacy Project