Tackle that Box of Letters

Trunk with LettersLetters and other written correspondence can put a voice to the faces you see in photos.

by Molly Bullard: Seattle Photo Organizing

In our previous blogs we’ve talked about why preservation is important, various sorting strategies for photos, and how through this archiving process you can uncover a variety of gems. As most families consider photos their most important possessions, letters and other written correspondence can put a voice to the faces you see.

Movie Actors


Often in movies an actor will gently pull a small box off a shelf and with anticipation we wait as they open the lid to reveal stacks of letters beautifully held together with a ribbon. We imagine the tormented love affair, pulled apart by war, religion and/or politics. Oh the stories these letters and keys to your family history they hold!



RIIIIPPPP! Just like it is better to rip a band-aid off quickly instead of pealing it off slowly, the romantic scenario of the trunk full of letters is often masked by the realization that we actually have sort through the materials to decipher meaning.

Trunk with Letters


I recently worked with a client that had inherited a trunk of letters. She willingly took the trunk but because of her busy schedule, didn’t open the trunk until two years later when her aunt asked if she could take a peek. Thinking ahead that if she passed the trunk along to her aunt it could perhaps sit untouched in her basement, there was now an urgency to determine what in the trunk had meaning to her and needed to be scanned.

So how do you find the gems in a stuffed trunk or box with hundreds of items?

Step 1. Define your goal.  Consider, When? Who? and Why?

When?  Give the trunk an age.

Estimate the time period most of the materials came from and who in your family line might have participated in the correspondence.

Of course there will be other materials that will have been added to the trunk over the years but the earliest pieces should ground you with a place to start.

Who? Who is the most fascinating person(s) to you during this time period?

Are you curious about the relationships within your mother’s family? Or your great-grandparents lives before they arrived in America? Just as you will find some family members and timeframes fascinating, you might find others not as interesting allowing you to check that off your list as “Checked, not interested”. For example, many, many letters might be between a distant aunt that is not particular of interest to you and can be set aside immediately.

Why? Consider what aspects of that time period interest you.

Bound LettersPerhaps you are passionate about women in literature and your great-grandmother wrote poetry in college.

Or your grandfather was in the Great War and you wanted to find out more about his experiences in battle.

Considering what you want to hunt for will keep you focused so you can sort more quickly and get to the fun stuff of gathering information.

Step 2: Create a Sorting Plan

When I am on my soapbox with clients I will say over and over that we need to have a sorting plan with the photo albums, slides, and memorabilia so we only do this task once. The same is true for these letters. With over four hundred letters to review, for example, this clearly defined plan of what was significant, and not significant, focused our sorting process.

  • We sorted the letters by postmark year and “no date”, if applicable
  • We created a box of “no’s” and a box of “yes’s” based on the answers to the questions above of when, who and why.
  • And we started to read the “yes’s”…

Step 3: Write down the important facts

As we all have very busy lives, it is common to well… sometimes forget some details. For that reason, I suggested we write clear notes of what we’ve found and document the ah ha facts.


Using an excel spreadsheet to manage the information, if a letter matched our ”significant” criteria, I would give the letter an inventory number (01, 02, 03..) and note who it was from, postmark, who it was written to, date letter was written and the content we felt was important to our story. Other letters were set aside.

Step 4: Communicate

Letters in folderYou might assume I am referring to telling your neighbor about your sorting process and fantastic stories you’ve read but actually, I am referring to the original materials. Write notes on the letter sets of what you’ve done. For example, “1942 Dottie’s Childhood-Reviewed/Scanned, 2014”, “1942 Dottie’s Childhood-Reviewed/Not Scanned, 2014”. And note the file location of where the digital scans reside. If you are going to meet the goal to only sort through this set once, help others understand what you did and how they can access the files. (Write another note on the outside of the box of what is inside and what you’ve done too.)

Step 5: Scan the originals

With our originals sorted, important content identified and entered into a spreadsheet, we were ready to scan the letters.

  • Using the Flip-Pal scanner is perfect for this type of delicate material. Scan the envelope first and all pages of the letter.
  • Use a consist naming convention such as,
    • 01 1941-03Mar LTR A Smith to F Nelson
    • 02 1942-17Dec LTR D Vitze to A Smith

    (Note: 01 and 02 match the excel spreadsheet log.)

Step 6: Protect the originals using acid-free products

Well done! You have completed this sorting and scanning project and can resume your work with family history and share the materials. To avoid deterioration of the originals, protect them with acid-free products.

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