Preserving precious letters from the past

How do I protect a collection of poignant World War II letters from my father?

First, copy them. Until recently, I always suggested photocopying. Today, I recommend scanning.

When copying the letters, make certain to keep the envelope and letter together. Individuals have a bad habit of taking letters out of envelopes and placing them in different piles. An accurate remating is very difficult. The envelope is a vital part of the document, especially for wartime letters.

Second, before making copies, determine how many are needed. Copies should be made for all surviving children. You may want to include grandchildren. Do not forget to copy wartime photographs and other memorabilia associated with the writer. The cancellations and dates tell a separate story.

Consider sending a copy to your local county historical society and library, state historical society and library, the library of the college or university where he attended (if applicable) and any military museum devoted to his unit or command. World War II letters currently are a hot research topic.

Third, once the copies are made, store the letters properly. Old shoe boxes, wooden boxes or plastic envelopes are not acceptable. Go to your local art-supply store or an Internet site such as university that sell archival supplies. Your needs are simple. Do not overspend.

Buy a ream of archival paper, which is paper made from plant rather than wood-pulp fibers, to place between the letters, the pages if a letter contains multiple pages, and letters and envelopes. This prevents ink bleed resulting in ghosting. The second item you need is an acid-free box or boxes to store the letters. Paper size determines box size.

Fourth, unfold the letters. Do not attempt to iron or fold back the creases. Lay the letters on top of each other, and allow time and the weight of the pile of letters to lessen the folds.

Fifth, develop a notation system for indicating parts of a letter, e.g., multiple pages and/or the envelope. Put the notation on the bottom left corner using a soft-lead pencil.

Sixth, when you have copied and preserved the letters, transcribe them. Some handwriting is difficult to read. Copying makes this more difficult. The information is important. Again, send copies of the transcriptions to the appropriate research institutions.

Finally, seventh, use the letters as the beginning of a research project to document the writer’s military service. Make the letters come alive.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in “WHATCHA GOT?,” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT?” streams live and is archived on the Internet.

“SELL, KEEP OR TOSS? HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected letters will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049. You also can e-mail your questions to Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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