PRESERVING YOUR VINTAGE POSTCARD COLLECTION
by Joelle Steele
Your postcard collection can be very valuable, but it is also extremely fragile. The chemicals and inks and the paper itself can easily break down and degrade over short periods of time, especially if the cards are mishandled or exposed to elements that speed up their deterioration. Learning to handle and store your postcards will ensure that they hold their value for generations to come.
As a general rule of thumb, it's best not to handle your postcards at all. Oils from your hands can damage them, so when you are examining them or preparing them for storage, wear either lint-free cotton, nylon, or surgical gloves that you can buy at photographic supply houses. When handling postcards, put on your gloves and hold the cards by their edges. Don't bend or fold them and don't ever write on them or cut them. In particular, don't ever try to "fix" any damage on a card. Unless you are an experienced professional conservator, you will likely do far more harm than good.
Vintage postcards, like all other works on paper, have many enemies, including molds, moisture, sunlight, glues, insects, the paper in old albums, extremes of temperature, and many air-borne chemicals found in smog and cigarette smoke. To protect them, you need to place them in suitable archival storage.
Begin the storing process by working at a very clean table, desk, or other surface. Put on your gloves and very carefully remove any paper clips, staples, or rubber bands from your postcards. If there is glue or tape on a card, take it to an expert and have them remove it for you.
You can place your cards in archival albums made for that purpose (don't ever store postcards in self-stick or "magnetic" type photo albums). You can also place individual cards between archival tissue and then place groups of them together in sleeves, bags, or envelopes made of high-density polypropylene or polyester (the higher quality of the two, which is the replacement for old-style Mylar sleeves). Do not pack the bags or envelopes too tightly. Store any cards that are in bad condition (e.g., water-damaged, eaten by insects, etc.) separately in sealed archival bags or envelopes.
Label all your envelopes and bags with an adhesive label on the outside of the bag or envelope. Never place labels on the cards themselves. Store your archival envelopes flat in archival boxboard containers with metal corners. Most of these storage boxes come in different sizes, and the metal corners allow for stacking and also prevent the corners and the contents in those corners from being crushed in. The archival boxes should be stored in a dark, climate-controlled room that has a reliable and consistent temperature of about 66-68°F (18-2O°C), with approximately 40-50% relative humidity. Do not store your cards in boxes in a basement, garage, or attic, or in any unheated or overly warm room, or in a closet that is on an outside wall of the building, or in any area that is subject to fumes from cars, cigarette smoke, or insects or pests of any kind. Do not place your boxes on the floor. Do not store your boxes next to a wall or backed up to a wall where there is anything that can cause a flood or fire, such as a heater, fireplace, electrical panel, sewer or water line, shower, toilet, etc.
DISPLAYING YOUR COLLECTION
The best way to display your vintage postcards is to display copies only. You can scan them or use a digital camera to duplicate them, and then edit them and print them out from your computer using an inkjet or laser printer, or simply create a virtual gallery for viewing on your computer screen. If you decide to frame some of your favorite originals, follow these directions to keep them safe while on display.
• Be sure that you mat the postcard on acid-free rag board, and that you use a double mat to prevent the surface of the card from coming in contact with the glass.
• Do not glue the postcard to the mat in any way. Use only small pieces of archival quality art tape to hold it in place at the corners, or use polypropylene mounting corners.
• When selecting a frame, remember that wood emits acid gases that can damage paper. In the long run, aluminum frames are best, and there are some forms of plastic frames that are also considered to be archival.
• Hang your framed postcard on an inside wall.
• Display your framed postcard in low light, tungsten light only. Do not place it near a lamp or focus any overhead lights on it.
• Do not place your postcard next to a window or near oil or gas heating sources.
Collectors don't call works on paper "ephemera" for nothing. Your postcards are ephemeral in every way, never meant to have lasted more than a very short time. But, as a collector, you will want to do everything you can to preserve them, and your careful diligence in handling and storing them will extend their life for many years to come.
This article last updated: 05/12/2016.