Have an ancestor’s World War II uniform or military medals? Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips on preserving your family’s military memorabilia.
John from New Mexico asks “There have been many members of my family and ancestors who served in the military. I have a military uniform and even some medals that I would like to preserve properly. How would I do that?”
John asks a great question and one that I get all the time as an archivist. Many genealogists have learned how to preserve their papers and photographs, but run into problems when it comes to artifacts and, in this case, military memorabilia.
Preserving textiles, such as a military uniform, can be quite easy as long as the correct materials are used. The key to preserving textiles is to protect them from the elements, especially light and moisture. Textiles can be very fragile, torn or wearing thin by use or not being properly stored. Our ancestor’s textiles are an important part of collecting and preserving the life story of our ancestors.
Before storing the uniform, make sure it is as clean as possible. It is acceptable to take the uniform to a reputable dry cleaner for a professional cleaning. Make sure and remove all medals or other attachments before cleaning. If the uniform is in bad condition, do not attempt to have it dry cleaned, just leave it as it is.
To properly preserve a military uniform, the archival materials that need to be purchased are an archival box and archival tissue paper (see Archival Materials Stores list below). The archival box needs to be big enough to hold the military jacket lying flat and not folded. Remove all medals and other military honors and ribbons from the jacket. Military uniforms should be stored flat, never store them on hangers in closets or in garment bags. Be sure to remove the dry cleaner’s plastic bag from the uniform. Stuff some archival tissue paper into the shoulders of the jacket to help them keep their shape.
Insert a piece of archival tissue paper inside the military jacket, lay the tissue paper flat inside the jacket and fold the jacket closed.
Lay a piece of archival tissue paper inside the archival box. Lay the military jacket in the box so it is lying flat. Lay another piece of archival tissue paper on top of the jacket and then place the pants, folded once at the knees, in the box. Last, lay one more piece of tissue paper on top of the pants.
The military medals and awards should be stored separate from the uniform. The metal in the awards could rust and damage the uniform, so it is important to store them separate from the uniform. Also, wool uniforms contain sulfur and could actually attack the metal and damage the metals. Before handling medals, put on gloves. The dirt and oils on human hands can cause oxidation of the metal and cause damage to the metals over time. Military medals should be cleaned with a dry, soft brush. Wrap each medal with acid free tissue paper and store in an acid free box lined with acid free tissue paper. If the original presentation cases survive, it is appropriate to put the medals back in their original cases for storage in an archival box. Be sure to wrap the presentation cases in acid free tissue paper before storing in an acid free box.
Store military uniforms and medals in a cool, dark and dry place. Avoid extreme temperature areas like attics, basements and garages. Check your stored items once a year for any discolorations or stains that need to be addressed. The sooner these problems can be caught the better. Also, when checking stored textiles, refold the items in a different way so creases do not imbed themselves in the cloth.
Preserving our ancestor’s military memorabilia, such as military uniforms, should be just as important to us as genealogists as preserving our ancestors’ documents.
Online Archival Supply Stores
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- Hollinger Metal Edge
- University Products
- Light Impressions
- Archival Methods
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Scrap Paper and Orphan Documents in Archives
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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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