A Short Course on Paper and Why it Deteriorates

Have you ever pulled out an old newspaper clipping and found it to be brown, seemingly dry and brittle? Or found a box of old letters in the attic but were afraid to handle them because they were discolored and seemed so fragile?

Generally, paper deteriorates over time unless it is stored properly. The main culprit is acid. Depending on what the paper is made of, it may deteriorate sooner than later. You may find two or three hundred year old paper that is in better condition than forty or fifty year old paper.

Before the mid-1800’s, most paper was made from cotton and linen rags, hence the name “rag” paper. The fibers tended to be longer giving the paper more strength. After the mid-1800’s, paper was made largely from wood which was more efficient with a plentiful source. But the shorter fiber length produced paper that was not as strong.

The wood pulp paper (depending on the manufacturing process) could contain lignin in the pulp which promotes acidification and it could be made with chemicals which when exposed to humidity, form sulfuric acid. Acids can also be absorbed by paper from the environment. Although unusual for material that has been in storage for years, paper is also damaged by exposure to light.

Newsprint is notoriously acidic and when stored with other documents can leach off this acid and damage other pieces. At HeirShare, we recommend making an archival copy of the newsprint and then throwing it away. All paper, unless buffered by an alkaline product in manufacturing, tends to be more acidic over time.

Is this more than you needed to know? Probably, but it explains why archivists (and HeirShare) use acid-free, lignin-free, buffered folders, envelopes, boxes and tissue to permanently store your family’s historical documents in order to achieve the longest life. When working with your documents and images, we will be sure that they are stored in the proper containers when we leave them with you.

Adair Watters

Error Message