Book Reveals the Secrets of 'Saving Stuff'

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Detail from the cover of 'Saving Stuff' shows a book, a dress and other items.

Williams and Jaggar have put together a book aimed at preserving family heirlooms. hide caption

itoggle caption

Don Williams and Louisa Jagger are on a mission to help people save treasured family heirlooms... be they silverware, photos or security blankets. They're the authors of Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This is the season when many of us are frantically accumulating new stuff: new clothes, new appliances, new electronics. But it's also a time for reconnecting with family perhaps at a table set with familiar Thanksgiving ware and a home surrounded by familiar and beloved objects. Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar want to help you save your treasured artifacts. They've written a book called "Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms and Other Prized Possessions." They've been on a nationwide tour demonstrating their tips. Don Williams is a professional conservator at the Smithsonian. Louisa Jaggar got into the science of saving by learning the hard way.

Ms. LOUISA JAGGAR (Co-Author, "Saving Stuff"): There was a big huge snowstorm in February 2002 and I live at the bottom of a hill in a little salt-box house. And all--when it started to thaw, it all melted and all the water came down and burst open the basement door. Inside the basement were all my cardboard boxes where I'd saved all my children's things, and they were completely just washed away. And I went to Don who was a friend of mine at the time and still is but he...

Mr. DON WILLIAMS (Co-Author, "Saving Stuff"): That's good to know.

Ms. JAGGAR: ...was, like, `Why did you put it in the basement?' What were you thinking?' I said, `Well, I don't have an attic.' And he said, `Don't put it in the attic either.' And I said, `Well, wait a minute. I really try hard to take care of my stuff. What do I need to do?' And it started a conversation that led to the book "Saving Stuff."

ELLIOTT: Now on your tour you guys lug around a box of stuff to be preserved to sort of show people what you're talking about. Did you bring that to the studio with you today?

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's right next to me here.

ELLIOTT: Tell us what's inside.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We have a vintage book from the early 19th century, a small baby's dress and we have a silver candlestick, a variety of things. One of the really great things about our tour is that we very often invite people to bring small things for us to look at. And this is not in any way an appraisal fair, but we do look at them and Lisa talks to them about the importance of saving family stories and then I talk about the strategies for actually keeping, you know, the family diary, photo album, Bible around for generations, centuries, millennia to come.

Ms. JAGGAR: There was a woman who brought in a beautiful--it was a piece of artwork that her son had did, and there was a hand on it and it said, `I love you, Mom.' And she said, `I want to know how to save this.' I said, `Well, that's really easy. You save it the same way you save a Picasso or a Monet.' And she said, `Well, I need to save it. My son died two years ago and this is what I have of him.' And that was--it really took us aback because we didn't expect the emotion that people have brought to these demonstrations and workshops. The stories that they tell are amazingly personal.

ELLIOTT: You know, one of the things that I think a lot of people like to save in their family are old letters and things, letters that they may have gotten from their grandparents or love letters from their parents. Can you give us a quick lesson on what to do to preserve the paper?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Sure. For starters, if it's something that's important and you want to have access to to handle and to display, make a duplicate because a lot of times our own handling of artifacts is the largest risk they face, because we--the chemistry of our skin and sweat and, you know, all that stuff--we are laboratories of deterioration.

ELLIOTT: Now what about--you mentioned the silver candlestick. With the holiday season, you know, people are digging through their cabinets looking for the stuff to decorate their table with. And I don't know. I go to my cabinet and I'm going to find a silver candlestick that's completely tarnished because I know I didn't store it properly. What should I have done?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, silver should be stored in a--generally wrapped in silver cloth, which is available at, I think, every fabric store in America. And that is a special tarnish-inhibiting material that you can wrap around it once it's clean. The trick is getting it clean. And really one of the hard parts is that, as a conservator, I don't recommend any commercial metal polishing product.

Ms. JAGGAR: So if it cleans it very, very easily, it's probably very bad for your silver. It's taking off not just the tarnish but part of your silver.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Make a slurry out of pulverized chalk or pulverized limestone, a slurry of pulverized limestone and white lightning, alcohol, that you could buy at the liquor store, and you would use that--it is an extraordinarily mild polish and it allows you to really monitor the process and progress so that you don't go too far.

ELLIOTT: And there's one section in your book that I guess we should talk about since this is radio after all. There is a section about preserving audio recordings. So how do you make sure that the audio recording you made of, say, your child's first word will be around for that child's grandchild?

Ms. JAGGAR: You duplicate it on to a new medium, because the old, like, eight-tracks, there's no way to play them anymore. VCRs are going very quickly out of mode, and what's going to happen is you're not going to have a VCR to play the VHS tapes on. And so what you want to do is copy it on to a CD or a DVD, knowing then in 10 years you're probably going to have to reduplicate it again on to the latest technology because CDs, in and of themselves, and DVDs may last an incredibly long time. The equipment you need to play them on won't.

ELLIOTT: Here's something interesting that I think record collectors will enjoy in your book. You write that vinyl records are actually the most stable recording medium ever devised. Why is that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: They are formulated in a particular way from a chemical engineering point of view that those materials are almost immune to deterioration.

Ms. JAGGAR: They're indestructible.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Pretty much. And unless there's mechanical damage--it's broken, it's abraded, it's, you know, warped in the sunlight or something like that--I don't honestly know what the outside end of those looks like. But, you know, I'm guessing it's many, many centuries and maybe even millennia. But again getting back to the point Louisa was making earlier, are there going to be turntables and are there going to be diamond styluses to play them on?

ELLIOTT: So we're going to be stuck with all...

Ms. JAGGAR: And it's because...

ELLIOTT: ...that '70s music for a long time?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Disco will never die.

ELLIOTT: Louisa Jaggar and Don Williams are the authors of "Saving Stuff." They joined us from the studios of member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho.

Thank you so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thanks a lot.

Ms. JAGGAR: Thank you.

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Books Featured In This Story

Saving Stuff

How To Care For And Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, And Other Prize Possessions

by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar

Paperback, 338 pages | purchase

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Saving Stuff
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How To Care For And Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, And Other Prize Possessions
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