Trying to Preserve Your Family Artifacts? Don’t Do What I Did.

During World War II, my maternal grandmother Hazel was a glassblower for scientific glassmakers E. Matchlett & Son in New York City. When my mother gave me her work badge, I was happy to have it. It was a way to remember my grandmother and a source of inspiration for my genealogy work. I proudly displayed it on my desk for many years. Big mistake.

I remember my grandmother being fiercely independent, a little tough, and a lot of fun to be around. She was always doing something and going somewhere, often taking me along for the ride. She would grab my hand and walk so fast that I would drag behind her. I just couldn’t keep up! She took me everywhere–to Coney Island, to Prospect Park, and she walked up to the top of the Statue of Liberty with me (I suspect she regretted that last one). She had spunk. I liked that, and in many ways aspired to be like her.

Like many women of that time, while the men served in the war, Hazel took a job that was previously unavailable to women. There’s a story though, that my grandfather Harold also worked at E. Machlett & Son. When my grandmother got a raise and made a penny more than he did, he quit! Most likely Hazel lost her job after the war or perhaps after she married my grandfather. She always seemed proud of her job and I was too. I always thought that being a glassblower was the coolest thing on earth.

The badge is a metal pin, photo insert, and paper label. It wasn’t until we lived in sunny Florida that I noticed a problem. In the summer of 2018, while packing up our stuff and getting ready to move to our new apartment, I realized that the paper label had faded from green to yellow. It hadn’t occurred to me that just leaving it out could do so much damage.

The first thought that raced through my mind was that my mother was going to have my head. When I told her, she reminded me that she also gave me a small tube that my grandmother made for use in airplanes. Well… I don’t have it, so it was either lost or broken in a move. I am very lucky that I still have my head and that my mom still trusts me enough to care for the family heirlooms.

I always say that the “sun is my enemy” because I can get a sunburn in under thirty minutes. Sunlight is one of the most destructive elements to your family heirlooms as well.  Moisture, extreme temperatures, and improper handling can also cause damage.

So here are a few tips that you can do right away to get your heirlooms out of harm’s way.

  • Move your artifacts, particularly documents, photographs, or anything made of paper or cloth, out of direct sunlight.
  • Get them out of your basement, garage, or attic where they are exposed to extreme or fluctuating temperatures and away from pests.
  • Store them in a cool, dry, dark, and well-ventilated location. The best places to store them are in a closet, filing cabinet, or bureau. Do not store them on the floor where they can be exposed to flooding.
  • Keep away from plumbing, fireplaces, air-conditioners, and other sources of light, heat, or moisture.
  • Remove your artifacts from cardboard or plastic boxes and into acid-free archival boxes.
  • Store paper documents and photographs in acid-free plastic enclosures made of uncoated polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene.
  • Carefully remove staples and paper clips.
  • Carefully remove photos from magnetic or self-adhesive albums.
  • Wash your hands and/or wear white cotton gloves while handling old and fragile documents and photos. This keeps them protected from body oils, fingerprints,  and smudges.

My grandmother’s work badge is now safely kept in an acid-free box in my closet along with some other family heirlooms that I want to protect. Every now and then I dig into the box and take it out just to look at it or show it off. Then back in the box it goes, knowing it’s well protected and will not deteriorate any further. We all want to display some of our family treasures, but if you do, consider only displaying them for short periods of time and away from direct sunlight.

Stay tuned for future posts with more tips on how to protect and preserve your family keepsakes.

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