Preserve Old Family Media — 3. Paper
Updated: Jun 26
Preserve Old Family Media
A Six Part Series
Part 3. Paper
Part 1 Restore & Digitize — an overview of: (1) types of old family media; (2) why & how they are being destroyed; (3) why & how they should be properly stored and digitized.
Part 2 - 6 — specific preservation information for each family media type:
Part 2 Photographs — loose and in old albums
Part 3 Paper — handwritten letters, important documents, newspaper clippings etc...
Part 4 Film — negatives & slides
Part 5 Movie Film — film reels
Part 6 Videos — VHS videos & and camcorder videocassettes
1. A Brief History of Paper Communication
Our increasingly electronic, fast-paced world has continued to unlock more convenient and speedy modes of communication (text, social media, video-chat...), ever since the mid-1990s when the “you’ve got mail” tagline referred to an electronic message, rather than a handwritten letter in the mailbox. In it's day, the Industrial revolution of the mid-19th Century also opened up new avenues to simpler and speedier communications.
Before industrialization, paper was made from a variety of textile fibers such as hemp, linen and cotton rags. The invention of wood pulp paper-making in the 1840s significantly reduced the cost of paper, and high speed presses printing on both sides of a page at once, made newspapers available to a larger part of the population.
Before 1840 letters were delivered by courier, coach or horse rider. The receiver paid the cost which was dependent on the number of pages and distance traveled. To prevent the contents of the letter from being read by others, they were sealed with colored wax. That year, with Sir Rowland Hill having invented the adhesive Postage Stamp, England establishing the first postage stamp system. This was quickly followed by other countries around the world and leading to the Universal Postal Union that still sets the rules for international mail exchanges ... and making stamp collecting a very popular hobby.
Throughout history, handwritten letters have had a major impact on nearly every aspect of society. Notable examples have been preserved and displayed in museums, and the skill of telling a story through writing letters and personal correspondence is the basis of the epistolary style of fiction writing. The introduction of inexpensive mail services, together with the invention of the ink (fountain) pen and paper made from wood pulp fibers, opened letter-writing to the masses. Without the means of attaching a digital photo or sending a link, people often enclosed photographs, clipped newspaper and magazine articles, hand-written recipes and all sorts of other memorabilia.
Like e-mails and text messages today, most everyday communications were discarded. The ones that were kept had deeper meaning. These handwritten letters are among the most significant memorials that our family members have left behind them — love letters / correspondence between soldiers and loved ones back home. These were precious keepsakes to the recipients, to be re-read many times when apart from the correspondent.
First with the widespread use of type-writers and now emoji strewn electronic communications — that you simultaneously SEND to numerous people or POST to an even wider audience — the custom of handwritten everyday communication has all but disappeared. Today, the rare handwritten letter has become substantially more impactful (at least with us oldies). It shows the recipient that the writer has cared enough to take the time to gather their thoughts and personally craft a thoughtful letter (in their best hand writing) to articulate genuine and heartfelt sentiments.
The tradition of sending commercially produced Christmas cards also caught on with advances in printing technology, and was later extended to cards for other special occasions. Sending greeting cards remains popular to this day, despite the convenience of electronic communication. This is partly due to the efforts of the Greeting Card industry to market increasingly diverse greeting cards, to suit any 'special occasion'; and for each, providing a range of messaging from the funny to the inspiring. More importantly, we still send cards to express feelings of gratitude and good wishes, knowing that including a thoughtful hand written message will be appreciated by the receiver.
The first two decades of the 20th Century became "the golden age" of postcards, a craze of sending and collecting (billions!!!) of very inexpensive, superbly colored, postcards depicting newsworthy events, people, and local scenes. 'Postcarditis' waned when World War 1 interrupted the flow of high-quality, low-cost postcards from Germany AND the next communications revolution — THE TELEPHONE — offered an alternative form of quick communication. The tradition of tourists and travelers sending friends & family back home "wish you were here" postcards — more to engender envy? — remained popular until universal wi-fi access offered the opportunity of real-time social media postings... but like stamps, vintage postcards now can have value as collector's items.
2. Family Keepsake Documents Are?...
Like our family photos, the precious 'vintage documents' that our family members kept have great significance in the telling and preservation of our family stories, with reminders of major family events, traditions, achievements and lifestyles:
— Hand-written letters... so cherished... stashed in their original stamped envelopes, and often with other gems — photographs (of course), clipped newspaper and magazine articles, trading cards etc...
— Rare Antique scrapbooks & journals... both the most priceless and fragile. They bring the past to the present because what is written in... and the items stuck to... them can tell us so much about the family members who made them and the world they lived in — newspaper clippings, vintage cards, special occasion announcements, photos(of course); old family recipes accumulated and handed down over several generations.
— Important Documents... certificates proudly framed. Other documents in file folders, or sometimes rolled up with rubber bands around them.
3. Old Documents are decaying...
Before the industrialization of paper production made from wood pulp, paper was made from cotton rag. Two centuries later that paper can still be flexible because of the length of the paper fibers, with minimal discoloration due to a lack of acidity in the sheet. By contrast, lignin and other residual acids present in wood pulp are activated by heat & humidity over time, causing a whole host of degradation issues with our vintage family documents:
— Old newspapers, made to be read today and tossed out tomorrow, are printed on cheap paper. Rips and tears on the papers, some dating back to the original rope ties that held the bundles together, are made worse from handling. Folded newspaper degrades even faster at the folds. In the worst cases the paper has just crumbled.
— Fifty year old letters & envelops which were originally a brighter white, have yellowed from the inherent acidity and exposure to light, which also causes the inks to fade and the paper to easily rip and become brittle (in the worst cases even crumbling).
— Ballpoint pens, which were just becoming popular in the late 1940s tended to leave unsightly blots of ink on the paper which often bled through to the other side.
— Documents stored in warm, damp, dark places have got moldy.
— Paper is soiled or torn from being handled and damaged by being folded or creased.
— Pressure-sensitive (scotch) tapes used to repair tears on degrading documents only made things worse. The adhesive penetrated through the paper, and the tape eventually dried out and fell off leaving ugly yellow scars and nasty adhesive residues on the paper.
— Old rubber bands, staples and paperclips holding vintage papers have also done damaged.
— Scrapbooks are particularly fragile, their contents wear out, colors fade, the pages tear, and bindings fall apart.
4. How to Store Old Documents
Handle & Unfold Carefully
When going through fragile old paper memorabilia, they need to be handled very carefully. It’s a good idea to wash your hands thoroughly first, to get the oils off them.
Letters should be removed from their envelops and unfolded. Beyond the envelopes, old rubber bands, staples and paperclips holding vintage papers should be removed before laying them flat. Extra caution should be taken with unfolding newspaper clippings. While the creased areas will always remain weaker than the rest of the paper, their deterioration will be slowed and the creases will flatten over time. Flattening pages by placing them between acid free papers on a smooth flat surface under a heavy weight for a day or two, can help.
Note: There are paper conservationist who know how to repair even the most fragile and decayed pages (see Resources page)
Store Them in Acid-Free Archival Folders/Boxes.
The decay of vintage family documents made from acidic wood pulp is inevitable. As the paper decays, it "off-gases". Stored with modern storage products— that allows these gases to dissipate into the air — will substantially slow the decay and add years to their shelf life.
For long term storage, interleaving pages & scrapbooks with acid-free paper is a good idea, before placing them in non-acidic archival folders, envelops and boxes. These are better off in a closet in the main part of the house — not exposed to sunlight & humidity under control — than in unregulated attics, basements and garages.
5. Why Digitize Old Documents?...
Family Memories are Priceless
The information that our family documents hold are worth more than the paper they are written/printed on. Digitizing the originals creates a record of the documents in another medium and provides an additional level of preservation and accessibility!!
Old Paper has a shelf-life
Proper storage and handling can add years to the shelf life of precious family documents but these solutions aren’t permanent! Digitizing, backing up and uploading to the cloud is a MUST for preserving and sharing cherished family details today... and passing them on to future generations, tomorrow!!!
Scanned documents can be digitally restored
Filters can be applied to return yellowed pages to their original ivory colored state. Unseemly ink blotches, tears, stains and discolorations can be made to magically disappear. Otherwise illegible information can be enlarged for easier reading and faded writing can be sharpened and brought back into view. Disappearing information can sometimes be saved from moldy and or crumbling pages before they are lost for good.
Scanned documents can be shared
Digital copies can be uploaded to the cloud to be easily shared electronically with other family members. Hard copies of family letters, recipe cards etc... can be made and handled without further damaging the originals.
Documents can be Replicated
Proudly displayed framed certificates that are starting to fade due to exposure to sunlight can be replaced by a virtually identical (but more robust) replica, and safely stored to stop further damage. Digital replicas of whole scrapbooks and journals can be recreated, with the exact layout — fragile captions, newspaper clippings, photos, cards, and other memorabilia stuck to the pages — that the creator intended. Pages can then be shared on a screen or reproduced in Photo books.
Documents can be Organized
Converting old documents to digital files can also help organize and reclaim family memories.
Multiple items found in a single envelop (letter, photos, clippings etc..) can all be scanned and saved to a single pdf file. These files can then be further organized in appropriately labelled folders — timeframe, family name etc...
... AND Digitizing is a great backup plan in case of flood, fire, or other mishaps that can destroy priceless memories!!!
Digital Note: a subscription to Newpapers.com "the largest online newspaper archive" may be a better option than trying to scan disintegrating newspaper clippings.
6. How to Digitize Documents
DIY Use a Scanner
In our newer All-In-One ubiquitous home-use desktop printers, the primary document printing function has been merged with the scanning and copying functions... this was what our separate desktop scanners used to do!!
The scan area in most 'modern' All-In-One printers or stand-alone scanners are a "standard" size that can accommodate up to Letter /A4 size pages. In communication with a computer, either can be easily used to digitize many old family documents, provided the pages are in reasonable condition and no more than "standard" size. Larger pages can still be scanned, in sections, and then digitally "stitch" back together.
DIY Use a Smartphone
The continually improving image resolution and image-enhancing Apps of the latest smartphones can make them a better scanning option for some projects — less handling of documents/larger single scan area/scanning of framed documents.
For more challenging projects, there are professional specialist scanning services (see Resources) with larger scanners that can handle odd sizes and more sophisticated techniques to photograph pages that are too delicate to scan.
Connect with DigitalKreation:
I would love to hear from you:
Contact us with any questions or feedback
To Learn More Go To:
Blog — to see more posts about Why and How -To preserve, organize, plan and present family media (there are a number in the works).
Resources — for external links, useful information, products, services... and more!
FAQ — this may answer some of the questions you have;
Services — to see the personalized guidance solutions that Digital Kreation offers.
The information presented in this Blog is an accumulation of my own experience and internet searches. I am not affiliated with any of the institutions, services or products that are mentioned.