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The Archive Lady: Preserving Military Uniforms and Medals

World War I Jacket, Houston County, TN. Archives

Cheryl from Oklahoma asks: “I have my great-grandfather’s World War I uniform, which includes the jacket and pants, that I inherited. All of his medals have been pinned to the jacket and they look like they have been there for some time because they are starting to wear holes in the material. What is the best way to store the uniform and do I keep the medals on the jacket or take them off?”

Cheryl asks a great question, especially since we are in the middle of commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, also called the Great War. This war lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918 and saw the death of many across the globe.

Preserving textiles, such as a military uniform, can be quite easy as long as the correct materials are used. The key to preserving textiles is to protect them from the elements, especially light and moisture. Textiles can be very fragile, torn or wearing thin by use or not being properly stored. Our ancestor’s textiles are an important part of collecting and preserving the life story of our ancestors.

World War I Jacket, Houston County, TN. Archives
World War I Jacket, Houston County, TN. Archives

Before storing the uniform, make sure it is as clean as possible. It is acceptable to take the uniform to a reputable dry cleaner for a professional cleaning. Make sure and remove all medals or other attachments before cleaning. If the uniform is in bad condition, do not attempt to have it dry cleaned, just leave it as it is.

To properly preserve a military uniform, the archival materials that need to be purchased include an archival box and archival tissue paper (see Archival Materials Store list below). The archival box needs to be big enough to hold the military jacket lying flat and not folded. Remove all medals, other military honors, and ribbons from the jacket.

Military uniforms should be stored flat; never store them on hangers in closets. Be sure to remove the dry cleaner’s plastic bag from the uniform. Stuff some archival tissue paper into the shoulders of the jacket to help them keep their shape. Insert a piece of archival tissue paper inside the military jacket, lay the tissue paper flat inside the jacket and fold the jacket closed.

World War I Jacket with archival tissue paper inserted, Houston County, TN. Archives
World War I Jacket with archival tissue paper inserted, Houston County, TN. Archives

Lay a piece of archival tissue paper inside the archival box. Lay the military jacket in the box so it is lying flat. Lay another piece of archival tissue paper on top of the jacket and then place the pants, folded once at the knees, in the box. Last, lay one more piece of tissue paper on top of the pants.

 Archival box with archival tissue paper, Houston County, TN. Archives

Archival box with archival tissue paper, Houston County, TN. Archives

The military medals and awards should be stored separate from the uniform. The metal in the awards could rust and damage the uniform, so it is important to store them separate from the uniform. Also, wool uniforms contain sulfur and could actually attack the metal and damage the metals. Before handling medals, put on gloves. The dirt and oils on human hands can cause oxidation of the metal and cause damage to the metals over time. Military medals should be cleaned with a dry, soft brush. Wrap each medal with acid free tissue paper and store in an acid free box lined with acid free tissue paper. If the original presentation cases survive, it is appropriate to put the medals back in their original cases for storage in an archival box. Be sure to wrap the presentation cases in acid free tissue paper before storing in an acid free box.

Military Medals
Military Medals

Store military uniforms and medals in a cool, dark and dry place. Avoid extreme temperature areas such as attics, basements and garages. Check your stored items once a year for any discolorations or stains that may need to be addressed. The sooner these problems can be identified the better. Also, when checking stored textiles, refold the items in a different way so creases do not imbed themselves in the cloth.

Preserving our ancestor’s textiles, such as military uniforms, should be just as important to us as genealogists as preserving our ancestor’s documents.

Archival Material Websites

Here is a listing of online archival materials stores. They all have online catalogs and paper catalogs that can be sent to your home. Also, be sure to sign up for email notifications because they periodically have sales and will send out email notifications.

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If you have a question about researching in archives or records preservation for The Archive Lady, send an email with your question to: melissabarker20@hotmail.com

Melissa Barker - The Archive LadyMelissa 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. 

©2017, copyright Melissa Barker. All rights Reserved.

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