Caring for Your World War II Memorabilia
World War II began for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Since the average age of those participating in the
conflict was twenty-one, WWII veterans today are around eighty years old. Soon, the stories that they have to share will be learned secondhand, told by children or written in textbooks. Artifacts from the war will become increasingly vital in helping to tell the entire story. Therefore, it is important for veterans to record the history of their memorabilia or, at the least, for families of veterans to care for this material properly.
Documenting Memorabilia and Memories
How a collection of personal memorabilia is organized can determine whether a group of treasured family items is carefully passed on to future generations or whether it is viewed as "some old World War II stuff" that may or may not be saved. Without a written record, the history of the objects can be lost over time, so documentation should be a key part of the effort to care for and preserve your World War II-related items.
Obviously, the length and extent of the documentation is up to the people involved. A basic method involves writing a summary of the veteran's service, including any memories that the veteran wishes to record and the history of the related objects. The veteran's name, hometown, rank, branch of service, and dates and locations of service should be among the information included. Useful questions to consider include: in what way did the veteran's service fit into the larger picture of World War II? Did the veteran participate in a large military campaign or battle? Are the items related to combat service or military training? Are some items captured war souvenirs? Where and how were these items captured or collected?
A veteran's memorabilia often will be a mixed group of items; an item-by-item listing of the objects, along with a brief background, can be used to organize the material into subgroups of items that have a shared history. Photographs should be identified on the back as to person, place, subject, and date, if known. Objects having a high potential for theft, such as firearms and other weapons, should be photographed and the serial numbers recorded, and a copy of this information should be stored separately from the items. Secure storage in a safe or a locked cabinet is recommended for weapons.
One way of documenting the veteran's service and related objects is to turn the task into a family project. If grandchildren are involved, the project often can be a useful way for children to learn American history from a family perspective. If the veteran no longer is living, another family member may know key information about the memorabilia that can be recorded. Again, the length of the documentation can vary, and more can be added later. The important thing is to establish a recorded base of background information to go along with the objects being preserved.
Whether the memorabilia relates to a combat soldier from the European theater, a nurse who served in the Pacific, or a civilian who contributed to the war effort on the home front, the history of the person's service should be as important as the related objects being preserved.
Optimal Storage Conditions
Different materials have different conditions in which they are most stable and survive the longest. A piece of steel will survive best in a relative humidity (RH) that closely approaches zero. On the other hand, virtually all organic materials require some degree of humidity to retain their shape and flexibility. We couldn't store things such as negatives, an ivory figure, a silk flag, parchment, or most paper in 0% humidity without risking cracking, embrittlement, permanent distortion, or even disintegration. Since very few artifacts are made of a single material, and since the cost of maintaining separate enclosures at different humidity levels can be prohibitive, we compromise when selecting humidity levels and strive for 50% RH. For most artifacts, some latitude is allowed; as a practical matter, a range from 35% to 70% RH is not going to damage most classes of materials. This range is within the capability of most home air conditioning systems. One exception to this is film, both prints and negatives, which should never be stored in an environment above 60% RH. Supplemental humidity may be required during dry winter months or additional dehumidification during humid summer months. On the other end of the scale, high RH is damaging to almost all artifacts. Bright steel rusts quickly; moisture-absorbent materials swell and soften; and organic materials can start to mold above 70% RH. Worse, on a chemical level, many of the reactions that degrade an artifact proceed much faster in the presence of humid air.
Very low temperatures generally are not detrimental to most artifacts, unless they are frozen immediately after being taken from a state of high humidity. An example of this would be storing sensitive film in sealed plastic enclosures in a freezer; in this situation, moisture condenses on or within an object, then forms ice crystals. Ice swells as it forms and can cause the emulsion layer to spall off the film base. However, with the exception of plastic objects, which can become brittle at low temperatures, many artifacts survive best in freezing temperatures. For example, color photographs and slides take much longer to fade at 32° F than at 76° F. This is due to slowed chemical reactions within the emulsion of the film or print. If one desires to do this, two warnings apply. First, the film or prints should be sealed in airtight plastic bags to guard against water damage in case of a power failure. Second, the pictures should be conditioned to a level of 20 to 30% relative humidity before freezing.
High temperatures, on the other hand, are universally damaging to artifacts that incorporate or that are made of organic materials. Elevated temperatures drive the reactions within the material faster, leading to a more rapid breakdown of paper, leather, cloth, and other organics, resulting in a shorter life span. In addition, heating air that is already dry (low RH) effectively makes the RH even lower, resulting in the damage due to low humidity mentioned above.
There are myriad insects that can, and will, eat anything edible in your collection. Cockroaches, house crickets, silverfish or firebrats, cigarette beetles, and book lice will eat paper. Carpet beetles will feed on a wide variety of materials, of both animal and plant origin (wool, silk, cotton). Clothes moths feed only on proteinaceous materials (wool, silk, leather, feathers) and blends of synthetic and proteinaceous fibers, but will damage synthetic and plant fibers (cotton, linen, canvas) when feeding on sizing, starch, or food spills in the fabric. Furniture beetles, powderpost beetles, and termites will tunnel in and feed on wood. Hide or leather beetles eat any kind of animal skin, from taxidermy specimens to tanned leather, and will feed on accumulations of dead insects as well. Roughly speaking, if it can be eaten, something will eat it or will damage nonedible materials to get to the edible material. The cigarette beetle can eat pyrethrum powder strong enough to kill cockroaches. The drugstore beetle has been known to pierce tin foil and lead sheet to get at what is inside.
The best defense is to deny access. Once one is sure that the artifact is clean and free of insect eggs, the object should be stored in a container that seals tightly enough to keep insects out. If uniforms or other textiles are in sturdy enough condition to withstand cleaning, they can be hand laundered or hand dry-cleaned once prior to storage to remove possible insect eggs, food spills, sweat, and body oils. Periodic washing or cleaning is neither necessary nor advised. Outside the storage container, insects can be trapped with sticky traps or baited traps such as liquid-filled jars from which they cannot escape. One also can use poisons. Not all poisons work equally well on all insects. For example, borax powders will readily kill roaches but have no effect on silverfish. For infestations that are beyond what a homeowner can control with over-the-counter insecticides, one would do well to consult or hire a professional exterminator. One should never forget: there is no such thing as an insect poison that will not harm a person.
Acidic surroundings and containers
Most containers in which people choose to store artifacts-including brown cardboard boxes, newsprint wrappers, scrapbooks with black paper pages, and glassine envelopes-are made of very acidic materials. The acidity of these environments, in contact with artifacts, will accelerate the degradation of most organic materials as well as some metals.
What Not To Do
- Don't store organic materials in ammo cans. There is a chemical in the paint used inside steel ammunition cans that probably is designed to keep the ammunition from corroding. The fumes from the paint can adversely affect some classes of organic materials. One plastic recognition model of a Zero was fine until the 1970s, when it was put into an ammo can. When it was looked at in the 1980s, it had melted into a plane-shaped lump. It turned out to be made of gutta percha, a compound made from natural rubber.
- Don't use steel paper clips and staples to group your documents. Unless you live in a very arid climate, the steel is guaranteed to rust, marking and weakening the paper that it is holding. Plastic and stainless steel clips and monel staples are available from the companies listed below in "Sources of Supplies."
- Don't store organic materials in attics, basements, or garages. The high RH found in most basements will promote mold growth, and the possibility of flooding exists. In attics, heat and extremely low levels of RH will accelerate degradation reactions in papers and photos, as well as drying them excessively. A garage can experience any of these conditions at least once every year, as well as being a haven to insects.
- Never use self-adhesive transparent tape (Scotch © or other brands) to repair any paper artifact. The adhesive deteriorates very quickly, will migrate into the paper, and will permanently stain it brown.
- Don't laminate any original paper artifact. It is not possible to remove lamination plastic without destroying the paper inside, and the plastic has a shorter lifespan than the paper it encapsulates.
- Don't use rubber bands to bundle papers or other objects. They will crush the edges of potentially fragile paper, become gummy as they age, and can cause discoloration where they touch the object. Instead, cotton or linen tape is recommended for groups of artifacts that can be safely tied (e.g., a scrapbook with a loose cover).
Classes of Materials
Uniforms Cotton is nearly 100% pure cellulose; as such, it is largely free of acidic components that are responsible for the deterioration of other materials that incorporate cotton. Provided that they are not attacked by insects or exposed to high heat or strong continuous light, cotton uniforms survive very well. One caution: if a piece of clothing was intended to be starched and pressed (and one wishes to display it in that condition) and if it is in sturdy enough condition, it would be wise to wash it to remove the starch, which is a desirable foodstuff to many insects. The starch can be replaced with methylcellulose, a water-soluble, pure extract of cellulose. Methylcellulose is as inert as the cotton; both are consumed by a much smaller group of insects than those that will feed on starch.
Unfortunately, woolen uniforms are much more subject to insect attack. As stated previously, they should be hand washed or hand dry-cleaned (once) to remove greases, oils, and food spills, and then placed in sealed containers to prevent reinfestation by clothes moths and carpet beetles. Flat storage is preferable, since the garment's own weight can distort or even pull it apart when it is hung. The article can be stored in an acid-free box with padding and support to maintain the garment's correct shape. If it must be hung, the hanger should be plastic, padded with layers of unbleached muslin to maintain the correct shape in the shoulders; the trouser bar should also be padded to prevent developing a horizontal crease. The hung uniform should be enclosed in a bag, preferably of muslin, nylon, or polyethylene (see "Sources of Supplies" below). Be very cautious of using plastic garment bags (dry cleaners, travel) other than polyethylene; many of them give off gases that will harm the textile as the plastic ages. If a plastic garment bag becomes brittle or sticky, discard it and switch to muslin or nylon.
Canvas Canvas artifacts such as web belts, pouches, suspenders, packs and tents can be a mixture of cotton and hemp. Although hemp doesn't have quite the long-term stability as cotton, the same guidelines apply.
Silk maps and flags Silk is a particular problem. Most other textiles are reasonably tolerant of high pH (basic conditions) and are damaged by low pH (acidic conditions). Silk is easily damaged by both. Many detergents are basic; ammonia, which is so useful in removing oils and greases, is also a very strong base and should never be used to wash silk. It is also possible to buy archival storage containers that are chemically buffered with a base. These generally are intended for storing naturally acidic materials such as newsprint; the container retards the paper's ability to self-acidify, prolonging its life. However, boxes, tissue, and sleeves buffered with a base will shorten the life of a silk artifact as readily as an acidic container (e.g., a brown cardboard box). Silk is also very easily damaged by sunlight (especially in the presence of sulfur dioxide, an atmospheric pollutant); light breaks apart the chemical bonds in the strands of protein that are silk. High humidity also will accelerate chemical decomposition of silk.
Metal artifacts such as uniform buttons, buckles, and medals generally are brass or plated brass and may be uncoated or coated with a clear finish. The tendency is to keep them shiny by regular polishing, but this temptation should be avoided. Most polishes contain fairly aggressive abrasives that can remove plating and even fine detail from the surface of the metal. Some medals were issued with an antique bronze finish; polishing these could actually remove the original finish and damage the object. Additionally, most polishes contain ammonia as a degreaser, which can promote stress corrosion cracking in brass and other alloys. The ammonia penetrates microscopic fissures in the metal and actually can cause the metal to break. The metal parts of other artifacts such as firearms, swords, and bayonets can be cleaned to remove residues from their surfaces, but only alcohol or mineral spirits should be used and then only on the metal. The coating on the stock of many firearms (whether oil or a varnish) very likely will be soluble in either alcohol or mineral spirits. Uncoated metals should be handled with cotton or nitrile gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the metal; oils and salt from peoples' hands can quickly and permanently etch a brightly polished surface. In the case of brass buckles, snaps, grommets, or other brass hardware attached to leather (e.g., pistol holsters, Sam Browne belts, saddles), one can expect to find organometallic deposits at the point of contact of brass with leather. These salts usually are bright green and gummy and are formed by a chemical reaction of the copper in the brass with the oils used on the leather. The deposits can be removed, but they will reoccur unless something (for example, a thin strip of Mylar) is inserted between metal and leather to prevent contact. In many cases, this is not possible.
Live ammunition or ordnance
While the combat veteran who collected this type of souvenir undoubtedly will be aware of the potential inherent in an explosive artifact, his heirs may not be. Rifle or pistol ammunition poses no particular threat unless it were to burn. However, machine gun ammunition of .30 caliber and all larger sizes can have tracer (incendiary) or explosive projectiles. Veterans also may have collected such souvenirs as hand grenades and mortar or artillery shells, and there is no guarantee that all of them have been rendered nonexplosive. As general rule, altering an original artifact is considered taboo, but in the case of something that inadvertently could maim or kill the person handling it, safety becomes the primary concern. A civilian may not be able to tell whether one of these has been defused and had the main explosive charge removed. If you have a potentially explosive artifact, call your local police department to ask about defusing it. If you have concerns that local laws may require them to confiscate and destroy the object, you may want to find a private expert with experience in Explosive Ordnance Disposal. If you are the veteran who collected it and already have had it defused and the charge removed, label it so. If you have not, all live or potentially live ordnance should be kept in locked metal storage containers.
Because weapons are composite artifacts-that is, made of more than one type of material-the low humidity that would be most beneficial for the metal parts would cause the wooden stock or grip to shrink and possibly crack. It is for these types of artifacts that the compromise of 50% RH is intended; it is high enough to protect the wooden parts and low enough that steel will not readily rust. Gunstocks and pistol grips should not be oiled as they were when in use; linseed oil, the most common drying oil used for this, becomes dark and gummy as it ages and breaks down, and actually will absorb moisture rather than block it. Other wooden artifacts might include field furniture and souvenirs. Painted field furniture was designed and built to be sturdy and durable; it is doubtful that it will need anything more than an occasional cleaning. If one has some other nonmilitary wooden souvenir such as furniture, please see Artifact Care Series #2, "Caring for Your Furniture," on the Museum of Florida History Web site at /collections/caring-for-your-artifacts/artifact-care-series-wood/. In general, keep the object clean, out of strong light, in RH under 70%, and, if it has not already been done, don't refinish it. Up to 50% of the monetary value of an artifact, and some of its historic value, can be lost if it is refinished.
There truly is not a lot that can be done to leather to extend its life, beyond maintaining clean and adequate storage conditions. Leather is naturally acidic, and if it is vegetable (oak) tanned, it contains its own seeds of destruction. The natural tendency of oak-tanned leather is toward increasing internal acidity, which ultimately results in the breakdown of the protein fibrils that make leather. This acidification is accelerated greatly by atmospheric pollutants, especially sulfur dioxide, a product of the combustion of all fossil fuels. The resulting condition is called red rot, wherein the inner layers of the leather crumble and the finished face of the leather cracks and falls off. Red rot is dramatically accelerated by excessive humidity. One well-intentioned mistake that people make with old leather is to apply an oil or a leather dressing to it in an attempt to recondition it and restore suppleness. Usually, by the time the decision is made to do this, the leather already is internally damaged. To make matters worse, the oils in dressings become increasingly acidic as they age, accelerating the breakdown of the leather. The best treatment for leather is none. One should remove mold if it is present, and boots, shoes, and holsters can be stuffed with (chemically inert) spun polyester batting to maintain their shape, but control of the humidity in which the object is stored is by far the most important thing that can be done. Under correct conditions, leather will last a very long time. For more information, see Artifact Care Series #4, "Care of Historic Leather Artifacts," on the Museum of Florida History Web site at /collections/caring-for-your-artifacts/artifact-care-series-leather/
Under ordinary circumstances, most paper, even the cheapest and most acidic grades, will last quite well. The highest-quality paper is made from cotton rag. Cotton is nearly 100% pure cellulose; as such, it is largely free of lignin and other components found in wood-pulp paper that are responsible for the self-acidification and more rapid deterioration of newsprint and many other papers. Exposure to light is responsible for the yellowing and embrittlement of paper, even of pure cotton rag paper. Ordinary writing paper of the kind used in personal letters and in military orders is rarely of the best quality, but is considerably better than that used in newspapers and paperback books. Where yellowing will take some time to show on ordinary paper, exposure to direct sunlight can yellow newspaper in a matter of days. As with so many other materials, the breakdown of cellulose is accelerated by high humidity and temperature; these factors increase the acidity of the paper, which in turn increases the rate of breakdown. Acidic papers can be de-acidified by impregnating them with magnesium carbonate, effectively setting back the clock, but this should be done only by a professional paper conservator because inks and colors can run. One should realize that de-acidification does not reverse previous damage in the form of yellowing and brittleness.
Important documents should be stored flat, preferably inside an acid-free enclosure or polyester sleeve. Repeated folding and opening of folded paper will eventually result in failure at the folds. Fragile papers should not be flattened forcibly, but should be laid out on a flat surface and allowed to "relax" on their own over a period of days. Oversize document, such as maps, can be housed between two pieces of acid-free mat board. Highly acidic newspaper clippings should be sleeved separately to segregate them from direct contact with other paper; it would be advisable to photocopy them onto acid-free paper while they still are strong enough and legible. All papers should be stored in the dark.
Black and White Prints. Properly processed black and white prints are quite light-stable. There is no published evidence that high light levels alone will fade or discolor them, and they can be safely displayed for much longer periods (months) in light levels that are too strong for other artifacts (color prints, dyed textiles, watercolors). However, they should not be displayed in direct sunlight or even strong indirect sunlight. Discoloration of black and white photos is generally a result of processing chemicals left in the print or are from a later contaminant including, but not limited to, the wide variety of glues used to stick them down.
If one wants to arrange photos in an album, use one with pages made of acid-free paper. Acids can attack the silver particles in the emulsion that make the image, tarnishing them through the same process that tarnishes silverware, thus destroying the image. (This also can occur as a result of air pollutants, many of which are acidic.) Polyester corners are available to mount the pictures to the pages. Under no circumstances should one use photo albums with "magnetic" pages; the sticky lines on the pages will artificially age and discolor the photograph.
Framed photographs should be mounted on acid-free mat board, with a window mat between the print and the glass, to keep the print from touching and possibly sticking to the glass. As with color photographs, consider having a high-quality duplicate made for display. Put the original away in an acid-free paper or a polyester sleeve, in the dark, to ensure its continued longevity. Black and white prints are ideally stored at 68° F, and 30 to 40% relative humidity.
Color prints, slides, and negatives. Color photographs are much less stable than black and white prints and can be counted on to fade noticeably within the space of one's own memory. Exposure to all frequencies and intensities of light will fade the dyes in prints, but the rapidity of the damage can be somewhat controlled. Mounted prints should be framed behind UV filtering glass or plastic, and light levels should never exceed 50 lux or 5 lumens, which is about the brightness of a 50-watt incandescent bulb at three feet. (Light intensity decreases rapidly with distance from the source, so a brighter source could be used farther away, as long as the level at the print is no brighter than 50 lux.) Color prints should never be displayed in full sunlight, strong indirect sunlight, or under fluorescent lights (which emit high levels of UV) that are not equipped with ultraviolet-filtering sleeves. Original color prints should never be displayed; a good copy should be made for display, and the original kept in storage. When the copy inevitably fades, another can be made from the original. Unfortunately, the dyes in color slides and prints appear to be the only known color medium in the art world that fade in the dark as well as in strong light. High temperature and high humidity will dramatically accelerate fading of color photographs, both in dark storage and in light; oxidation and hydrolysis (a result of humidity) irreversibly destroy the dyes. One partial solution is to seal the originals in a plastic pouch and freeze them; freezing effectively slows oxidation and hydrolysis to almost nil. It is important to note, however, that they cannot be frozen without putting them in a sealed enclosure, and the humidity level within the enclosure should never exceed 30%. Color slides, prints, and negatives should be placed in inert plastic sleeves before putting them in the enclosure to prevent them from sticking to each other. Sleeves should be made of uncoated polyethylene or Mylar. PVC or highly plasticized sleeves (they give off a "plastic" smell, like a new shower curtain or a child's wading pool) should never be used. Outside of frozen storage, color photographs should be stored at 60° F and in 20 to 30% RH.
Larger prints that have been stored rolled can be flattened by allowing them to "relax" in the same process used with paper, but it may be necessary to do it with the addition of humidity, which allows the emulsion (image) layer to soften. With all prints, if the subject of the image is known, it should be written on the back, lightly, with a soft lead pencil because inks can bleed, run, or fade.
A special note about black and white negatives, color negatives, and color slides. Film stock made before 1951 can be on three different plastic bases: cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate, and polyester. The latter two are called "safety film," primarily due to the combustibility of cellulose nitrate, an early form of plastic. Cellulose nitrate is inherently unstable; as it decomposes, it gives off nitrogen dioxide, a highly acidic gas. For this reason, it is dangerous to nearby materials, which are usually other negatives on safety film. Moreover, when in a tightly sealed container, the gases given off by cellulose nitrate film accelerate the film's own decomposition. In addition to the risk of exposure to acid gases, large film libraries (motion picture) consisting entirely of cellulose nitrate film have been known to spontaneously combust. It is unlikely that the average veteran or their heirs will have a large collection of this type of film, and the risk of fire is minimal. However, it is important that cellulose nitrate negatives be identified and separated from all other types of materials, including metals, for their safety. Nitrogen dioxide can quickly corrode most metals. If the negatives are not imprinted with the words "safety film," a simple test will identify the film. Clip off a small piece of the negative from outside the image and touch a lighted match to it. If it burns quickly and completely, with little ash, it and all other frames from that roll should be set aside for separate storage. Safety film will typically blacken and bubble before it reluctantly lights, and then it will give off black smoke. Those negatives identified as cellulose nitrate should be sleeved individually and stored in a cool, dark place with good air circulation to prevent the buildup of nitrogen dioxide. Recognize that they will continue to deteriorate even under these conditions and will someday be gone. Consider having them copied onto safety film stock.
Scrapbooks and Photo Albums
Old photo albums with black pages are made of very acidic paper; however, if the album is historic, with writing or drawing on the pages, one cannot very well replace the pages with acid-free paper. The best solution in this case is to interleave each page with buffered tissue, which will absorb some of the acidity. You may want to remove highly acidic papers like newsprint from the album (but only if it can be done without damage), copy the item onto acid-free paper, and put the copy back in the album, storing the original in a buffered envelope. Always handle acidic paper carefully; it may be brittle.
Sources of Supply
For further readings and links on care of a diverse group of artifacts the Smithsonian Institution's is excellent. Please go to: https://www.si.edu/mci/english/learn_more/taking_care/