DNA testing of old postage stamps, envelope flaps, and other personal artifacts will soon become readily available to the average consumer. Now is the time to locate potential specimens, preserve items in archival storage, and plan a testing strategy.
If you’ve already moved your family papers from cardboard boxes into new archival storage containers, you’re better prepared for the genetic testing of your ancestor’s DNA. Most of the questions I receive about archiving old family letters or preserving hair and hairbrushes mention saving these items for future DNA testing, but until recently, the future has seemed very very far away.
Occasional headlines have noted DNA successes in solving crimes or famous cases such as identifying the remains of King Richard III. Few cases seemed to offer DNA testing possibilities for the average genetic genealogist.
Then in February 2018, the British DNA testing company, Living DNA, announced its role in identifying the biological parents of adoptee Anthea Ring and solving a decades old abandoned baby mystery. Found under a blackberry bush by a vacationing family in 1937, Anthea’s story made headlines as Scotland Yard tried without success to locate her parents. But, it took genetic genealogy and help from experts to crack the case and identify her mother in 2016 and her father in 2018.
Discovering Anthea’s father was more difficult because he was one of six brothers, four who were potential candidates. Of those four, DNA testing of direct descendants of two brothers showed them to be first cousins to Anthea. Two brothers remained; which brother was Anthea’s biological father? Both were deceased and neither had direct descendants. However, a cousin had saved letters from one of the two remaining brothers. Living DNA was able to extract a viable sample from the letters and conclusively match Anthea’s saliva to identify her biological father. This same testing method will soon be available to all genetic genealogists.
The implications of Anthea’s story are exciting for genealogists.
Identify Old Letters for DNA Testing
I asked David Nicholson, Managing Director of Living DNA, if extracting and testing DNA samples from old letters or postage stamps would be available to the general public and he confirmed that this service would be widely available by the end of 2018 at a cost of $1,000-$2,500.
“We test both [envelope flap and stamp], depending on which have been licked and then not touched. The flap is great if a letter opener has been used,” Nicholson adds.
Look for family letters that have not been handled extensively, where the flap and seal are intact. If you have a large collection, try to find multiple samples. Nicholson noted that for Anthea’s case, tests from the postage stamp were more successful than those from the envelope flap.
Letters that have been stored inside a larger envelope, folder or box might be more pristine than those tossed loose in a drawer. Likewise, in a bundle of envelopes, look for letters towards the middle of the packet that have been protected from handling. Wear white cotton gloves when handling to avoid further cross-contamination.
In my own family archive, I have letters with flaps and postage stamps intact sent by my great-grandmother in the early 1900s. But unlike Anthea, I don’t have a targeted research problem that could be answered by testing my Great Grandmother Minnie’s DNA. And until I can develop that question and identify likely test subjects for comparison, I want to preserve those potential DNA samples in the best possible way.
Preserve Old Letters and Artifacts for DNA Testing
Nicholson recommends storing letters and artifacts for future testing inside acid-free paper folders and boxes in cool, moderate conditions. Avoid storing items inside plastic due to possible moisture.
“Just don’t freeze,” he warns. “That will damage the DNA. Store in a dry place that is not touched.”
A good option is to place items in a breathable bag or box in a dry location. Avoid moisture and heat.
And what about the artifact’s age? I asked. I hope my own letters haven’t degraded over time.
“Age can play a part,” Nicholson adds, “but it’s mainly down to how it’s been stored.”
We can’t do much to change the way our family letters and keepsakes have been stored in the past. But, a few steps can safeguard those items while they are in your care:
- Identify potential items for DNA testing and isolate from other items. Wear white cotton or nitrile gloves to avoid further contamination.
- Place the individual item in an acid-free paper folder or envelope. Avoid plastic.
- If possible, store this envelope inside an archival box or a metal file drawer to further protect from handling and temperature fluctuations. This location should be inside your home where temperature and humidity doesn’t change dramatically. Keep dry.
Click on the SHOP tab in The Family Curator Menu for recommended archival storage products.
- Handling and cross-contamination
TIP: If you don’t have an archival folder or envelope, sandwich the letter and envelope between two sheets of acid-free resume paper (available at most office-supply stores). Place everything in a standard file folder or large envelope and store as directed in #3.
Should the envelope be opened and the letter sheets stored flat?
Archivists recommend storing correspondence opened flat with the envelope.
For DNA analysis, however, the less handling, the better.
Whatever you choose to do, for testing purposes, the envelope flap and seal must be unbroken.
Plan A DNA Testing Strategy
Testing DNA from your great grandmother’s letter won’t have much value without a well-defined testing strategy that fits the services offered by the testing company.
Start with a solid research question that might be answered by DNA evidence. What do you want to know, and what DNA evidence might be available to advance a solution to the problem?
- Family legend says that your adopted spinster great aunt had a secret past. You want to explore the possibility of unknown cousins. She wrote frequent letters to your grandmother that you inherited from your aunt’s estate.
- Which ancient Smith / Smythe surname is yours? You are a female and have no living male relative to test, but you do have a letter from your great-grandfather Smith.
- You’ve discovered a situation of misappropriated paternity and have narrowed the search to three deceased brothers with no descendants, all who wrote letters you now own.
It would be wonderful if an ancestor’s DNA could be uploaded and compared to a huge user-base where we could confirm cousins and discover unknown relations, following shaky leaves along the way. Or, if the raw data is available, to use the exported file for matching via third-party services. But, we aren’t there, quite yet. Right now, it’s wait and see.
Use your waiting time to learn more about DNA testing and how to use it to your genealogical advantage. Check out books, websites, webinars and institutes to learn more.
Two of my favorite books include The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger; and Genetic Genealogy in Practice by Blaine Bettinger and Debbie Parker Wayne, reviewed here for The Family Curator.
Plan ahead. Start now by identifying potential DNA samples, moving items into archival storage, and developing research questions that take advantage of new testing options.
Extracting DNA from family keepsakes holds tremendous possibilities. The initial cost might seem expensive, and the artifact might be destroyed, but for many adoptees and family historians, the results could be priceless. Are you ready to mail your ancestor’s old letters for DNA testing?
Thanks to David Nicholson, Managing Director of Living DNA, for providing information about new testing options for family artifacts; and to Blaine Bettinger, J.D. for suggesting research scenarios that might benefit from testing heirlooms for DNA evidence.
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