The Archive Lady: Organizing and Preserving Old Christmas Cards

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The Archive Lady: Organizing and Preserving Old Christmas Cards

Rhonda in Nevada asks “As I prepare to send out my Christmas cards this year, I am reminded of the box of old Christmas cards I inherited from my Grandmother who kept everything. Some of these cards date back to the 1930’s and have some great art work on them. They also have messages written in them from family, friends and neighbors. I can’t bring myself to throw them away, what is the best way to preserve them so that they are not just in a box in the closet?”

Box of Christmas keepsakes and cards
Box of Christmas keepsakes and cards

Rhonda’s question is one that I suspect all genealogists wrestle with about this time of year, each and every year. Should we keep those Christmas cards we receive from friends, family and neighbors or do we just throw them away? Add to that, Rhonda’s predicament of having inherited a box of old Christmas cards from her Grandmother.

The first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London on May 1, 1843. Since that time, people across the globe have been sending and receiving Christmas cards as part of the Christmas season. This tradition of sending cards has always been a way of communicating with family and friends. Many people write messages in their cards or send photographs.

Example of one of the first Christmas cards from 1843.
Example of one of the first Christmas cards from 1843.

I have a confession to make: I have kept every Christmas card that I have ever received. To some this may seem extreme, but for me I feel like I am saving my family’s history. I have cards from family members that have passed and this is the only record I have of their handwriting or signature. These cards are very precious to me.

How to Preserve Christmas Cards

Before the preservation process can take place, it is important to document each card by digitizing them.

Digitizing Christmas cards can be very tedious and time consuming. However, if you want to insure that these records are preserved in case of a disaster that destroys the cards, digitization is a must. If you don’t want to keep the cards, but only want to document the information in them, digitizing them can accomplish this goal.

Bateman Family Christmas Card, ca. 1930’s, Houston County, TN. Archives
Bateman Family Christmas Card, ca. 1930’s, Houston County, TN. Archives
  • Scan the entire card including the front, inside and back. Place the scans in a computer file of the ancestor who sent the card in a separate folder entitled “Greeting Cards”. Also, scan the envelope the card was mailed in, if you have it.
  • Take a soft #2 pencil and on the back of the card write the year it was received. Hopefully, the card’s subject will tell what the occasion was, but if not, you might want to make a note of the occasion.
  • Consider placing a note in your family genealogy software that says something like “Christmas 2016, received Christmas card from Aunt Marie, she signed the card”. If the person wrote a message in the card, you might want to transcribe that into the notes field as well. Also, record the sender’s mailing address from the envelope.

Preserving Christmas cards or any greeting card is very easy. It is really a matter of using the right materials and being consistent in the archiving process.

Archival Materials for Greeting Card Preservation

  • Archival plastic sleeves in the size that fits the greeting card
  • Archival box, a Hollinger box is recommended

Example of a Hollinger box from Gaylord Archival

Take the greeting card and put it in an archival plastic sleeve that is the right size for the card. The archival supply stores have all kinds of sizes to choose from. Next, put the cards in the Hollinger box. I normally organize the greeting cards by surname and then within that surname I put the cards in date order by year. If you have a lot of greeting cards, like I do, you might want to dedicate a Hollinger box to one surname.

The process is quite simple and gets the greeting cards in order so they can be enjoyed. This also helps when you are looking for a certain card sent by a particular family member, they are easy to find.

Don’t let those Christmas cards overwhelm you! Organize them and preserve them so that they can be enjoyed by all.

Archival Material Websites

Here is a listing of online archival materials stores. Archival tissue paper and boxes can be purchased at any of the following online archival stores. They all have online catalogs and paper catalogs that can be sent to your home. Also, be sure to sign up for email notifications because they periodically have sales and will send out email notifications.

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine Legacy QuickGuide

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine Legacy QuickGuide

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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