Don’t Burn Your Family Letters When You Declutter

In the March 2016 AARP Bulletin, lifestyle expert Marni Jameson offered “20 Tips to Declutter Your Home.” I can go along with her advice on old musical instruments (contact your kid’s old music teacher for suggestions) and clothes (toss, donate or sell). But Ms. Jameson was way off target with her advice for love letters:

“Love Letters – Keep them if they’re yours. But if they’re your parents’, they’re not really yours: They’re part of a romance between your parents, never meant for you. Burn them ceremonially and send the love back into the universe.”

Are you kidding me?!?!!!!!

To go along with her reasoning, because the letters weren’t “meant for” others (whatever that means), we shouldn’t have been able to read Anne Frank’s diary or the letters between John and Abigail Adams. Ken Burns shouldn’t have been able to share the Sullivan Ballou letter:

“If I do not [return], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.”

Why You Shouldn’t Destroy Your Family Letters

Family letters — including your parents’ love letters — aren’t the same as old china. Once letters gone, they’re gone forever. If you get rid of the china, you can buy another set that looked like it. But you can’t do that with letters.

Letters give us a unique way of seeing people. We see their strengths, their weaknesses, what makes them happy, what breaks their hearts.

The big burly man who barely said a word is revealed to be a sentimental guy. The woman who had to deal with tragedy her whole life can be seen experiencing some of life’s joys.

Does Ms. Jameson really think that having a bit more space means we should destroy our irreplaceable family history? 

In my career as a genealogist and as a librarian, I’ve had the opportunity to process several collections of letters. Reading them, I am reminded of how universal some experiences are — the pain of being separated from those we love, the almost giddy anticipation of seeing them again, the quiet reflections of memories that we carry in our hearts…

There’s a new collection of World War II letters on the website of the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library — nearly 19,000 pages of letters between George Miller and Mabel Poth. Here’s the opening of one of George’s letters:

Decluttering family letters. Letter from George Miller to Mabel Poth, 1 October 1942. Genealogy Center, Allen County Public Library.

Letter from George Miller to Mabel Poth, 1 October 1942. Genealogy Center, Allen County Public Library.

Does Ms. Jameson mean to say that future generations shouldn’t be able to see how much George loved Mabel?

I don’t see how regaining a little bit of space in our houses is worth more than the family history we would be destroying.

Letters aren’t like china. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Don’t burn your family letters.[bctt tweet=”Letters aren’t like china. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Don’t burn your family letters.”]

UPDATE: Check out my interview with Denise Levenick, the Family Curator, for her tips on preserving old letters.

Don't Burn Your Family Letters When Decluttering

41 thoughts on “Don’t Burn Your Family Letters When You Declutter

  1. I have letters from 1821-1839 from my great great grandmother to her husband. She was a traveling Quaker minister. They give a wonderful snapshot into their lives and into Quaker history.

    • I’d say yes. Never have your files in just one format in just one place. You’d be sad if something happened to the scans and you didn’t still have the originals.

      • I believe that the original letters should also be retained but scan for everyday use, after all what do we look for when researching genealogy – the source document , the original. Its then really just knowing where it can be deposited when the holder is no longer around and making decisions again as to what and where for it.
        I have some from a Great Aunt who is no longer with us and have read the when first received and several times since, each time gleaning something new from them as my interests changed. I am so pleased that I have them.
        Also when I emigrated I wrote to my parents great novels as to all the trip and what we were doing to settle in our new country, these I have the replies to and until recently my mother had retained those letters but since a move they have gone missing. Mum did say to take them when I last visited but said that I couldn’t as they were written to her and would collect later how I regret this now as it would have great to have both sides of this start to my new life for my children to know what it meant. So here’s hoping that they turn up in one of her boxes in storage.
        So I would say scan and retain…. have many copies they hold valuable live events and with the age of computers where are the letters now..

    • YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The new approach, of scanning and discarding, is going to come back to bite us all in the backside, mark my words.

  2. I very much agree with you! My grandparents loved each other and their family very much. We have a packet of love letters that my grandparents wrote to each other when my grandmother was serving in the Navy WAVES during WWII. I would be utterly horrified if my mother burned them. Yes, they are love letters that may not have been intended for other readers. But most of the letters give insight to what life was like on the air base, and how my grandfather’s crops were doing at home. It’s valuable insight into their lives. They are both gone now, and their letters are a reminder of the love that they shared.

    I am also a little dismayed at some of the advice that Jameson gives about throwing away family photos (at least she recommends sorting through them), cutting up your wedding dress and getting rid of antiques. I can see many people just tossing family heirlooms and other things without checking with their families first. One of my grandmas was downsizing and doing just that- tossing family photos going back for several generations, selling family furniture, etc. Luckily we found out about it and rescued many things. She had just assumed that no one wanted them.

    I tried to post a comment on the original article, but alas I’m not yet a member of AARP. I hope that many people take your advice and end up keeping their love letters. Thank you for sharing on here Amy!

  3. I found a letter that my father must have found in my grandmother’s things after she passed away. It was from my grandfather when their early relationship was going through a rough patch and he was expressing himself to her using other people’s poetry. It was a bit uncomfortable to read but gave me an insight into my grandfather, who was not outwardly sentimental in any way. The letter together with a program he saved from the concert where they met let me see that he was sentimental, at least when it came to my grandmother. I’ll admit that in life he probably wouldn’t have wanted my father or me to read that letter, but he’s gone and it was important to me to see that side of him, even all these years after his death.

  4. I agree with you very much. Not just love letters, but letters from family at war times and Christmas letters that tell of the family and how things are at that time. These are all important to me and I think future generations will enjoy reading them and seeing how things were back in the day. I have read a journal of an ancestor in which she told about her day. A lot of it was nothing to exciting, but it told about her family and of neighbors and friends whom she cared about. People are so fast to throw things out that should be kept. They should ask around the family to see if someone might want things before they toss them out.

    • Exactly. Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that someone else in the family doesn’t want it. (Seriously, how much space would you be gaining anyway?!)

      • As my family genealogist, I was able to piece together some missing links while reading my dad’s letters to my mom. As an only child, I had a lot of “aunts” and “uncles” who eren’t relatives at all, but Aunt Irma was my dad’s aunt. I also learned some more about my half siblings who were 20+ years older than me.

  5. As a teenager, my mother was sent to live in Florida with relatives because she was seeing a boy my grandmother did not approve of. My mom and her mother corresponded regularly and, finally, after much pleading and promising never to see “Bob” again, my mother was allowed to return home…whereupon she promptly married Bob, who is my father! I love those letters!

  6. Hi Amy,
    I am Marni Jameson. It is always a risk to let a magazine excerpt your book. All the featured snippets of advice, or course, are out of context. I promise you, if you read my book, you would see that I approach my parents’ belongings with great respect, and heart. In fact, I had titled the book “A Heartfelt Guide to Downsizing,” before the publisher changed it to “Downsizing the Family Home.” If you read the book, for instance, you would see that bit of advice about the love letters came from Peter Walsh, author and TV personality. He and his siblings burned his parents’ love letters. I did not burn my parents’ letters, though I thought his suggestion had merit.

    I don’t believe in throwing away all letters or journals. But I do believe a violation of privacy occurs when you find something personal and private meant for someone else and you invade that privacy. You have to consider how your parents would feel about having their deepest feelings made public. I have a box of letters my mother wrote her best friend when my family lived in France, and I was a baby. My mom’s friend gave them to me with my mother’s permission. I cherish those. An argument can be made for keeping just about anything, and many, many people in our country cling to too much. The line of course is personal. In my book, I have tried to offer a mindset for people going through the family troves, which is emotionally overwhelming.

    Not everyone need take all the advice, of course, but I believe offer a well-reasoned, thoughtful and informed place to start.
    Live well.

    • Hi Marni,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post.

      I feel your pain when points you try to make didn’t come out quite as planned. Unfortunately, most people who see your article on AAPR.org will not be reading your book. With any luck, AARP will amend the article to better reflect your position on the matter.

      I believe that we many need to agree to disagree about the dispensation of letters. As a genealogist, librarian, and archivist, I cannot condone the destruction of family letters — including those that you describe as “private.” First, if the letter writer and recipient were completely against anyone ever reading them, they would have destroyed the letters themselves.

      Concepts of privacy change over the course of time. While we might feel awkward reading our parents’ love letters (and they might not want us reading them right now), that same sense of “invasion of privacy” doesn’t hold for future generations. It’s one thing to read letters of people you actually knew vs. reading the letters of people who died long before you were born, or even long before your parents were born.

      Destroying letters robs those future generations of learning of their own family’s stories. It robs future generations of gaining insight into the lives of the people who came before. It’s one thing to study history via official records. It’s something else altogether different to study history through the words of the people who lived through it.

      If someone doesn’t want to save their family’s letters, fine. But don’t destroy them. Find a historical or genealogical society or an archive that would be willing to accept them and care for them. Donors can even make stipulations that they not be made available to the public for a certain number of years.

      I am all for decluttering and, honestly, I dread the day when my sisters and I have to downsize our parents’ home. But I am not willing to throw away or destroy the irreplaceable pieces of history that are family letters. I cannot in good conscience advise anyone to do that.

      • I just read the article in AARP a few days ago and just shook my head. I definitely believe in purging and decluttering but I find myself the keeper of about 200 letters my father and his two brothers wrote home during WWII, also a stash from when my grandparents homesteaded in Montana in 1915. Yesterday my 11 year old granddaughter had a homework assignment regarding the wagon trains on the Oregon Trail and had to make a list of supplies. I took the opportunity to tell her about my granprents and told her I have the supply list from what they took on the train from Wisconsin to Montana. She was surprised, of course, so now I will get my album out and hope To share it with her this weekend. One of my favorite letters I ran across awhile back is the letter of support my dad wrote when my husband I and were stationed in Albuquerque in 1968 and I had told my parents I was staying in Albuquerque when my husband deployed to VietNam. I had actually forgotten about the letter and it brought me to tears. My family was all in Illinois but I stayed in Albuquerque and thankfully he returned one year later -3/7/69. And yes, I have our love letters from that time period – I haven’t read them in awhile but I know we shared our dreams of starting a family – and here we are soon to celebrate our 50th anniversary with our 3 children and their families! Aside of being away at church camp as kids I would say the majority of their correspondence is email and text. I feel there will be a lot history lost because of the famous delete button. . .

  7. Amy,
    Loved your response to the AARP article. I am the family archivist of all sorts of letters. My favorites are the ones my maternal grandparents (who I did know very well) wrote to one another when they were courting in 1916 as well as the ones they wrote to each other when my grandfather enlisted in the Signal Corps during WWI. I think my grandmother blushes each time I read a few of those very private, very intimate letters. I read them with a full heart because I did not know the depth of their love for one another until I read those. I did not know how fun my grandfather had been until I read them. I also have a few of my parents’ letters to one another when they were dating and after they were married but apart due to my dad’s military service. I blush when I read those! But it humanizes them and makes me understand that they were no different than my generation when it came to love and intimacy – worries and loneliness – etc. To say I treasure the boxes and boxes of letters I have is an understatement. It places those individuals in a historical light. Wendy

  8. I love to find old letters! As a girl who knows of many family treasured destroyed by my Grandma, I heartily agree that we should not burn, throw away, or destroy in any way letters, journals, etc. Even that one scandalous letter an old boyfriend wrote to my Grandma when they were middle aged… 😉

  9. Thank you for posting this article. Letters, diaries, and cards tell much about a family and events. My mum saved my dad’s letters when we had to seperate for three years, I’ve been able to journal family events and build these letters to write a our story of moving from the bush to the city.
    When you combine documents and apply the principles of knowledge management across them they become priceless. My simplest example is a diary. I was about to bin Mum’s diary written in 1972. At the back was the Christmas card mailing list – names and addresses of family and friends at that time. I scanned this into my birth Family Group Folder under the community event folder. All on a portable hard drive (destined to be passed down to my son). When he wants to know what my family and friends looked like in 1972 he has an information resource classified under a knowledge process. Because he lives in the Information Age, presenting a satellite map showing the location of my home and were the cards went to in 1972 could be quickly prepared. Hope you get the idea. Letters diaries and journals when combined with knowledge management and a independent digital device can give real soul to a family story.

  10. How I enjoy reading this article. As a mother of two sons, I know that any letters and also my own “treasures that I have saved” will not be considered as much value to my daugher-in-laws. It breaks my heart that none of them have any interest in the family history as I have been doing research for almost 40 years. I have some letters that were written by my aunts and mother to their parents when they were away working in the 1920’s.
    There are also so many pictures that were my mother-in-law’s, I wish that she had known how much I would treasure these. My own grandchildren show a bith of interest, so I am working on them to develop a sense of curosity in the family and their heritage. Sure hope that they are the ones that take over the research from me. So much work and fun doing it.

    Never burn a letter.!

  11. Clean freaks could care less! I’m glad I am a pack rat, approaching hoarder : ) We are the ones that preserve history.

  12. The greatest family treasures we have ar the letter of my uncle who died in France in WWI…letters to and from his brother that were so skillfully written that the censors cut out nothing, letter from his officers describing him and his service.

  13. I have a trunk full of letters my grandmother left. Put in chronological order, I learned about fsmily I never knew, and history (especially Texas History) my family was part of. Letters from my dad and his brothers in WWII. If you start burning, you could lose information that can give you direction. Most of them written in pencil are beginning to fade. They are now in avid free sleeves and in notebooks. The only things missing are the letters that Grandmother wrote!

  14. Amy, I absolutely agree. I treasure the family letters that I do have and wish I had more. I would love to find more! I have two letters that my Great Grandmother wrote to her grandchildren. I am quoting them in the Family History I’m writing because her personality really shines through in them. It brings her to life for me and I never knew her.

  15. I found hundreds of letters in my grandfather’s trunk in the attic that he wrote to his mother and her answers to him, dating from 1907 to 1914, expressing his fears, doubts and joys on becoming a Methodist minister. His journals, diaries, sermons and other writings gave me a clear picture of his life and times. If it were not for these letters and journals, I would have never known any of his relatives and how hard the times were for a poor minister.

    And although I know that he or his mother would be horrified that someone else was reading their private letters, I am so grateful to have them. She wanted him to burn them after he read them. He wanted to save them to read again in his old age because he loved his dear mother so much. I am so glad he did. I hope he got the chance to reread them one more time before he died.

  16. All that I know about my Grandfather (killed on WWI) is what I learn from reading his letters. They are my window on the past. My Grandparents courting letters are priceless and I would never destroy them, although they are now mostly scanned so other family members can have them as well.

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  18. 2 Reasons to keep letters………

    My mother had kept letters from her mother in a folder. I got the folder ………what was I going to do with a folder full of letters in the Czech language when I do not speak, read or write Czech?? Just keep them!!! Years later I made friends with a Czech woman who translated the letters for me………………what a treasure the letters are!!

    When my boyfriend and I broke up I tore up all of his letters. Six years later we married!! Guess who is sorry now???

    • Your comment makes me think of something — we can save letters without reading them. If we need distance to avoid “privacy” issues or because of emotion, we can save the letters, keep them safe, and still have them when the time and circumstances are right.

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  21. I have many letters that were written to me by friends and family as well as those written by me that the recipients have sent back to me as they downsized their homes. I have the letters my husband wrote to me when we were separated due to war. These I keep.

    But the love letters we exchanged were for us and us alone and I burned them myself years ago after re-reading them one last time. I would no more share intimate correspondence than I would a recording of imitate moments. Those private things are no one’s business! And I would feel uncomfortable reading someone else’s intimate correspondence.

    • That’s perfectly your decision. My position is that letters that are left behind should be saved. The next generation doesn’t need to read them, necessarily, but in a few generations, the “awkwardness” is gone since the reader didn’t personally know the writer or the recipient. But, again, the choice to destroy *your* letters is completely yours.

      • I agree with you. The receiver of the love letter has the option to destroy the letter at anytime. If she/he is afraid of someone finding them due to an untimely death they could at least put a note on them to destroy them or let a trusted friend or relative know your wishes. The only way to be sure they are not read by unintended eyes is to destroy it right when you have your hand on it. If there are no wishes then I think whoever is in possession of them can make their own decision.

  22. This is a provocative subject and I am glad you are discussing it. I received a collection of letters from Grandmother (who is still alive at 98) from all of her beaus at Annapolis just prior to WWII. None of these romances worked out, but she saved the letters because they were from a special time in her life. At least one of these young men died in a battle in the Pacific. I haven’t quite known what to do with them, but I certainly wouldn’t throw them out! If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them!

    • Hi Rachelle,
      A nice presentation idea is to link the date of the letters (if they are dated that is) to external events happening in the world when the writer was writing the letter.
      I did this with my letters from the 1970’s … this site http://takemeback.to/ is an interesting idea. It gives music, politics etc on that day you enter.
      Rod

  23. Where should the letters reside when the families don’t have place or time for them? One archivist told me they should go to a historical society or organization IN THE AREA WHERE THEY WERE WRITTEN, another told me they should reside in the part of the country where they arrived. We knew where a cache of 150 letters written 1830 to 1870 from one family of 12 children. We were able to zerox (years ago) most of them, and get a fine museum in the area where most of them arrived, to scan most of them to store. Original family who had them fought about them and many of the letters and documents were “removed”. Now, no one admits to having them and some new adult family members want to know where they went. Tis heartbreaking to me to know this treasure cache has been lost, stolen, destroyed. Please never destroy family letters, they are a history of family and should be placed with a historical society where some of the family lived….the writers or recipients. If there are family members who are interested in their family’s history, want to know the vocabulary the family used, the salutations, the manner they signed off, their handwriting and/or use of unusual letter format. By the latter I mean did they “cross-write” to save paper the way mine did.
    This makes letters hard to transcribe…
    Betty

    • It depends. (How’s that for an answer?!) If the letters are primary from a few people all from one area, I would approach a historical society or archive where those people were from. However, if the collection is letters from people who were all over the place, then I would approach an organization where the recipient lived.

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