Postcards – Family History & Archival Care
Why I Gotta Do This:
A Journey into Ancestry, Genealogy, Family History, Antique Photographs, Disorganization, Dysfunction, Chaos, and One Man’s Search for Archival Salvation
In rummaging through my family archive (click here to see the 8 blog installments thus far on THAT funny—yet truly informative—adventure), I have come across a bunch of old postcards from trips I went on with my old man (i.e. dad), my old lady (i.e. mom), and my siblings (watzername and wathizname), as well as some from trips I took with my own family (the ex, my two kidz). These run-of-the-mill color postcards are kinda boring, so while I am going to archivally preserve them in the family archive—following the suggestions listed below—I figured I would have some serious fun and make up a family / family history with some of the other postcards I have in my collection that I acquired over the years as I bummed around in antique shops (remember antique shops, all you pre-eBay baby boomer types?). Those postcards need the same level of archival protection, so why not use those to explain proper archival procedures and to illustrate my points.
The overall purpose of this exercise in “writing” the Great American Novel with these fictitious relatives is to seriously explain how and what YOU should really do with the real-life postcards in YOUR family archive. So, grab your pet squid and we’ll get right to it!
First, the Facts
Long before smartphones, tablet computers, email and social media, people would send all sorts of postcards to their family, friends and loved ones. The subjects of these postcards included everything under the sun, from locally- or amateur-made photographic scenes or portraits (often referred to these days as “real photo postcards” or RPCs) all the way up to mass-produced color lithographs or halftone postcards of major tourist destinations around the world (and Jackalopes, don’t forget the Jackalopes). Today, however, individuals can create and instantly share real-time travel photos (and the dreaded selfie) over social media, making the physical postcard somewhat obsolete or anachronistic.
Obsolete or not, the postcard has certainly not lost its appeal. In fact, collecting postcards has never been more popular, as vintage postcards offer a fascinating window onto the past—both public and private. Postcards from the family archive can also provide a vital link to the lives of our relatives, going back generation after generation.
Two General Types of Collections: “Family” Postcards and “Collector” Postcards
While there have been a grajillion different postcards created in the last 150 years since they first became popular (click here for the Smithsonian’s history of the postcard), there are essentially two general types of postcard collections:
1.) “family archive” postcards that depict family members (Cousin Lloyd, etc.) / homes / picnics / occupations / events / vacation destinations, amongst many others (see the following three postcards).
2.) postcard collections assembled by “deltiologists“—postcard collectors—who are interested in a particular topic / location / genre / physical “type” of postcard (photographic, chromolithographic, embossed, animated, etc.) / era / or any of a thousand-plus other collector categories and sub-groups.
More often than not, these two categories overlap or run parallel to each other. As mentioned, yours truly has a few sentimental postcards stashed away in the family archive as mementos of trips I’ve been on, and at the same time I have quite a number of thematic postcards that I have purchased in antique shops or on eBay while doing research for a couple of books I have worked on. Yet in each case, whether you are looking to preserve ten sentimental or family postcards or ten thousand collectible postcards, certain archival practices should be followed to preserve and enjoy your postcards now, and for years to come.
Why Postcards are at Risk
Although postcards are made from a thicker stock than your average paper artifact, this does not mean that they’re any less vulnerable to wear, tear, and the ravages of time. Like many forms of paper, postcard stock was often made as cheaply as possible, resulting in a relatively high acid content in the paper that can make it brittle. This is the result of naturally occurring acids in the material used to make the paper, or acids introduced during the manufacturing process to break down wood fibers. These acids can attack the paper itself over time, compromising the card’s structural integrity. Heat and humidity can actually accelerate this breakdown, so never store your postcards in attics, basements or outside storage facilities where temperature and humidity fluctuations are greatest.
In addition to the “internal” threat of latent acids, if a postcard gets wet (from leaky roofs / leaky water pipes / leaky water heaters) it can be vulnerable to developing mold, which may cause discolorations and deterioration of the paper. Water may also adversely affect postcards that have been written on as the ink might run, and water may warp or distort a postcard as it eventually dries out. Even excess light can ruin postcards—fading either the image on the front (especially photographic postcards) or the writing on the back—if exposed to too much light or direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time (click here for our illustrated blog on preventing light damage).
Handle with Care
Every postcard enthusiast, whether an armchair family historian/genealogist or a seasoned connoisseur/collector, may have his or her own thoughts regarding how best to store their postcards. In most cases, however, the easiest and safest way to store your cards is to place each postcard in its own individual archival polyethylene bag or protective sleeve that is just slightly larger than the postcard itself (to prevent stressing the card while inserting or removing it). This bag or sleeve will protect your postcard from dirt, moisture, and the naturally occuring oils found on hands and fingers. For an added level of safety you may also want to consider wearing white cotton inspection gloves when handling your postcards.
Store Safely and Efficiently
Regardless of how many postcards you have, they should all be stored in archivally-safe boxes or binders. Keeping your collection in an acid-free short top box, which is available in a convenient postcard size, is the perfect solution. The top is designed to fit tightly to prevent dust and other household pollutants from getting in. Using this type of box will not only aid in the long-term survival of your postcards, it will also allow you to sort and organize your cards in a orderly and logical way. Acid-free index cards, which are pre-scored for ease of use, can be used to separate different categories of postcards by date / subject / locale / ancestor / trip, or any other way you wish.
Another popular way of organizing and storing postcards involves placing them in archival 4×6″ polypropylene 3-ring print pages and then keeping these in archival 3-ring binders and slipcases. Organization is a snap, the clear pages allow you to see both sides of each postcard, and the handsome slipcase helps keep out dust and moisture.
Once you are finished either placing each postcard in an archival polyethylene bag or sleeve and then in an archival box organized with acid-free index cards, or you’ve safely tucked your postcards into 3-ring pages and placed them in archival binders, be sure to keep your boxes and binders on a shelf or in a hallway or bedroom closet in your “living space” rather than in the attic or basement. This will help keep your collection safe as temperature and humidity fluctuations are never as drastic in your living space as they are in attics and basements. Keep the relative humidity (rH) below 65% to prevent mold growth and reduce insect activity. Avoid very low relative humidity when storing family papers and photographs because relative humidity below 15% can cause brittleness.
Consider Framing / Displaying Your Favorite Postcard(s)
Some postcards should be matted and framed!!! Whether you have a cool old postcard that you just like for its theme or decorative presence, or you have an old photo postcard of an important relative or family gathering, consider a custom-cut archival mat and a frame kit and do-it-yourself. Boom! A great vintage piece on your wall to enjoy every day, or to give as a truly unique gift.
At the End of the Day
Postcards are a great way to travel back in time to the era of your grandparents or even great-grandparents. Keep these suggestions in mind as you consider what to do to preserve YOUR collection of family or travel postcards, and they will remain in great shape for years (and generations!) to come.
For More Information: If you would like a full explanation of the specific risks facing postcards, and detailed museum-level responses to these risks, please consider reading this scholarly guide from the Harvard University Library Weissman Preservation Center.
If you have questions or would like more information on the archival storage and presentation materials that are right for you, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.
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