The Archive Lady: What to Do With an Old Trunk?

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips on preserving an old steamer trunk that you may have inherited or found at a thrift store!

Carrie from New Jersey asks: “I bought this old steamer trunk 15 or so years ago. I got it a garage sale from a descendant of the original owner who was a doctor that traveled to Europe as a companion to a rich lady. You can see on one sticker that it was stamped in 1929. I want to clean it up a bit without taking away its history. Any thoughts?”

The Archive Lady: What to Do With an Old Trunk?
Carrie’s Steamer Trunk

I love this question from Carrie! I have always wanted to own an old steamer trunk and the one Carrie has is beautiful. The stories this trunk could tell about its travels and the places it has seen could probably fill a book.

One of the first instructions we learn as archivists is “Do No Harm” and “Don’t Do Anything You Can’t Undo”. This is very true in the case of Carrie’s steamer trunk. Carrie wants to keep this trunk as historically correct as possible and do no harm. Yet, she would like to preserve it so that it is not damaged any further.

The Archive Lady: What to Do With an Old Trunk?
Inside of Carrie’s Steamer Trunk

With artifacts like this steamer trunk, the old adage “less is more” really means something here.  If you are like Carrie and you have an old steamer trunk or any similar type artifacts, these are some simple steps to help you preserve that item:

  • Cleaning: One of the first things that should be done to Carrie’s steamer trunk is to clean it, inside and out. It is not recommended that any type of chemicals be used or any abrasive materials. Using a soft bristle brush, brush the inside and outside of the trunk to remove any loose dirt or dust is a great first step. Next, using a damp cloth clean the entire trunk from top to bottom. Be sure the cloth is not dripping wet, but just damp enough that it will remove any surface dirt that is on the trunk. Be careful not to rip or tear any stickers or labels that might be adhered to the trunk. These need to be preserved in place.
The Archive Lady: What to Do With an Old Trunk?
Inside Carrie’s Steamer Trunk
  • Preserving the Labels: If you are lucky enough to have traveling stickers and labels attached to your trunk, they should be treated very delicately. They are part of the provenance and history of the trunk itself and helps to tell the story of not only the trunk, but the people who owned it. In Carrie’s case, she has one label that is torn and in need of repair. You should not use cellophane tape or any other kind of sticky tape to mend this tear. There is a product called transparent mending tissue ( that is recommended by archivists and conservators that could be applied in this case to lay the label back down to the trunk and take care of the tear. The goal is to mend this label so that no other damage occurs.
The Archive Lady: What to Do With an Old Trunk?
Torn Label on Carrie’s Steamer Trunk


The Archive Lady: What to Do With an Old Trunk?
Transparent Mending Tissue
  • Displaying the Trunk: Once you have your trunk cleaned and preserved, you may be thinking about putting the trunk on display or just put a lamp on it. Steamer trunks are pretty hardy pieces of furniture and can be used as a table for a lamp just fine. If your trunk has any leather on, it such as on the buckles or straps, you need to pay close attention to the temperature and humidity levels where the trunk is being displayed. Leather can mold if put in a humid environment and crack in the presence of high temperatures. Keeping humidity and temperature levels at consistent levels will insure the leather will survive and not be damaged. If you are not going to display your trunk, store it in a cool, dark and dry place.
  • Document the History: Lastly, documenting the history of the trunk is very important. Whether this is a family heirloom or you are like Carrie and picked it up at a garage sale, the trunk has a story to tell. Write-up the story as you know it and then document the stickers or labels that shows where the trunk has traveled. Maybe even create a short biographical story about the trunk and place a copy inside the trunk for any future owners to find.

So, if you own a wonderful steamer trunk like Carrie, use these steps to preserve it and then take the time to document its story. But most of all enjoy it!

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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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