The Archive Lady: Preserving and Storing Plaster Keepsakes

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The Archive Lady helps a reader safely preserve a common family keepsake: plaster hand prints and other plaster items

Gaynol in Michigan asks: “When I was in elementary school in the 1960’s, we made plaster casts of our handprints to give to our parents for Christmas. The plaster was poured into a shallow dish, the hand pressed in and when dried we painted the area around the print with whatever those old school paints were made of. How should those best be stored?”

When I saw this question come into my email, I was instantly taken back to my childhood and remembered that I made one of those plaster cast handprints when I was in school. Then I also remembered when my daughter brought home from school the plaster cast of her handprint which was an instant keepsake and family heirloom. I am now looking forward to my grandson, who is only 3, to keep the family tradition going and one day making his plaster handprint.

The Archive Lady helps a reader safely preserve a common family keepsake: plaster hand prints and other plaster itemsCreating Plaster Handprints, University of North Dakota Photograph Collection

Archivists work with many types of materials in their daily work. We must be ready to deal with anything that we come across or that we accept as a records donation. Plaster casts of handprints, footprints and other works can be found in many of our archives. They get to our archives by being donated in boxes of family records or from estates. Archivists must be ready to take care of and preserve whatever comes across our desks including items made with plaster.

Gaynol’s plaster handprint is made from plaster of Paris which is a form of calcium sulphate. It is mixed in a wet concoction and then it is allowed to dry and become hard. Even though it is hard to the touch, it is easy to become broken if dropped or handled incorrectly. These types of heirlooms can be brittle and easily damaged. Plaster is also very porous and can easily absorb dirt, spills, or liquids, so it is important that we keep any liquids or dirt away from the plaster handprints. That means that how these items are stored and preserved is especially important if we want them to survive and be here for many more years to come.

The Archive Lady helps a reader safely preserve a common family keepsake: plaster hand prints and other plaster itemsAttic Space Is Not Good for Archival Storage

Because plaster is soluble in water, humidity is the worst thing for these heirlooms. It is important that these items be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place free of humidity to ensure the plaster handprint is not damaged. Also, keeping temperatures at a consistent level will help to keep the plaster items stable where they are stored. Choosing the right storage place means we need to measure and check the humidity levels, temperature levels and a place that is out of the sunlight.

I would encourage Gaynol to obtain archival tissue paper and an archival box that will fix the plaster handprint. The online archival stores sell all sizes of boxes from the smallest to the largest and they can even make custom boxes if needed. Line the archival box with archival tissue paper, place the plaster handprint on the tissue paper in the box and place the lid on the box. Now, if the item is moving around in the box, crumple up some more archival tissue paper and place around the artifact so it does not move around in the box. It is important that it cannot move because it can get broken.

The Archive Lady helps a reader safely preserve a common family keepsake: plaster hand prints and other plaster items
Archival Box and Tissue Paper, Gaylord Archival

Lastly, do not forget to place a note in the box with the history of the item. That way 100 years from now, your descendants will know the exact story behind your family heirloom.

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If you have a question for The Archive Lady, please send them via email and I could use your archival question in an upcoming edition of The Archive Lady column. Melissa Barker, a.k.a. The Archive Lady E-Mail:


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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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