In this article:
Ideas for Displaying Military Heirlooms in Your Home
Preserving Military Uniforms
Military uniforms are made tough and see a lot of action, which often leaves them worse for wear. But preserving your ancestor’s dress blues, red coats or camo greens doesn’t have to be a battle. The State Historical Society of Iowa offers archival preservation assistance covering a number of topics, including military memorabilia. You can read more details in the article “Preserving Flags, Uniforms and Medals”.
Here are some basic steps to follow to preserve military uniforms for yourself or family members:
1. Protect the military uniform from sunlight moisture and insects.
The most important guideline: Protect your heirloom textiles from sunlight, moisture and insects. Don’t keep the clothes in the attic or basement—the temperature extremes and risk of water damage are too dangerous.
2. Remove surface dust and dirt, then leave cleaning to the experts.
It’s best not to attempt to completely clean vintage duds yourself. However, you can remove some dust and dirt. Use a hand-held vacuum set to the lowest setting. Put a nylon screen over the vacuum nozzle (old pantyhose works nicely) to prevent damage. For a deep clean, find a dry cleaner who specializes in antique clothing, or consult a conservator. (Find tips for tracking down an expert online.) If the uniform is modern, clean it as its care instructions dictate, and then store the uniform as carefully as you would a vintage one.
3. Limited storage on a hanger is OK.
It’s OK to keep the suit in a closet on a padded hanger for the short term. You can pad a hanger with polyester batting and wrap it in unbleached, washed muslin to create a custom fit. But for the long term, you’ll want to store the uniform horizontally.
4. Preserve uniform and accessories in archival boxes for longer storage.
Flat garment boxes are available from any of the suppliers such as Gaylord Archival, Hollinger Metal Edge or University Products. (Never store heirloom textiles in plastic bags.) Wrap individual pieces with acid-free tissue paper, and be sure to pad folds with tissue paper, too, to prevent creasing.
Store hats, gloves and shoes in archival boxes with acid-free tissue padding to help the items keep their shape.
5. Be mindful of your storage location.
Store boxed uniforms in an interior closet free from extreme temperatures and moisture, and far away from pipes that may burst. That means no attics or basements. Keep uniforms away from direct light.
6. Display your military uniform heirloom for only six months at a time.
If you want to display the uniform, keep it out for six months at a time at most, followed by six months in storage.
Grace Dobush and Sunny Jane Morton, from the November 2009 (Dobush) and May 2011 (Morton) issues of Family Tree Magazine.
Family History Q&A: Old Military Uniforms
Les Jensen, curator of the West Point Museum, offers pointers on preserving our ancestors’ blues, greens and grays.
Q: Which military uniforms are descendants most likely to find?
A: Civil War material is rare, but occasionally pieces turn up. Uniforms worn in combat are almost nonexistent; they just didn’t survive. But “Ike jackets” from World War II and olive drab coats from World War I were worn home. WWII ones usually still have all the patches and decorations. Folks may find Grandpa’s WWI uniform in olive drab wool with blackened metal buttons.
Q: Did soldiers wear their uniforms as issued?
A: In the 18th and 19th centuries, soldiers wore the full uniform as issued, even in combat. Starting around the Indian Wars, soldiers sometimes altered their uniforms for practicality. Cavalry troops sometimes reinforced their trousers with tent canvas. Shirts were worn as outer garments during the Spanish-American War—nobody was wearing a coat in Cuba.
Q: What about dress and officers’ uniforms?
A: For a long time, the Army had one uniform in dark blue for all duty. As fatigue clothing was issued, the basic uniform became the dress uniform, and by the 20th century, there was a clear distinction. By the early 1940s, there were specialist organizations with their own uniforms and equipage: airborne divisions, tank or armor forces, and mountain troops. Officers had a distinctive uniform in World War II known as “pinks and greens,” dark brown-green coats with pink-tinged gray trousers. By the end of World War II, the 1943 field uniform superseded those, and all men wore that one uniform. The Army green uniform came in the late 1950s but was recently replaced by a dark blue uniform.
Q: What do the insignia, patches and decorations mean?
A: You’ll need guidebooks to interpret them. Branch insignia, indicating infantry, artillery or another branch, have remained fairly constant over time (for example, crossed rifles mean infantry). Unit or division insignia have been issued since World War I and are worn on the left sleeve. Rank for enlisted men was indicated by a chevron; officers’ ranks by bars, leaves or eagles. You might find the WWII “ruptured duck,” an eagle on a diamond background sewn to the coat on the right breast of a discharged soldier.
Q: Which preserving military uniform guidebooks do you recommend?
A: For the Civil War period, one of the best is American Military Equipage, 1851-1872 by Frederick P. Todd and others (Scribner). Schiffer Books has a growing number of volumes on 20th-century uniforms, including guides to insignia. Shelby Stanton did a number of books on Vietnam, such as US Army Uniforms of the Vietnam War (Stackpole Books). Jonathan Gawne’s Finding Your Father’s War (Casemate) also has material on uniforms.
Sunny Jane Morton
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine.
- Clean military medals with a soft, dry camel hair brush; remove any rubber bands.
- Lay medals on polyester batting covered with unbleached cotton or linen that you’ve washed and rinsed to remove harmful chemicals.
- Avoid exposing medals to high-intensity lights or heat.
With the Fourth of July approaching, you may be tempted to find the flag Grandpa gave you and run it up the pole. But flying Old Glory—if it’s truly old—could irreparably damage your family heirloom. Even washing the flag is a no-no. Your colors may indeed run, and the stress could cause tears in the fabric.
Textiles are especially vulnerable to light, dirt, extreme temperatures, humidity, bugs and pollution. The best course of action is to buy an acid-free flag box and interleave the fabric with acid-free tissue paper. Some climates require different methods of protection, however. In desert areas, use unbleached cotton instead of tissue paper; in semitropical and tropical climes, you need to take extra care to keep insects away. The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute says using tin containers has been successful in some places.
If you’re considering having your flag cleaned or appraised, consult a conservator. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works offers online tips for finding one. The institute also has helpful downloadable guides to caring for textiles on its website.
Ideas for Displaying Military Heirlooms in Your Home
Honor your ancestors’ military service by creating a unique display with heirlooms, photographs and other memorabilia. Spark new family history conversations and inspire yourself to learn more about their wartime experiences.
My husband’s most prized military heirlooms relate to his grandfather’s service in World War II. John Morton was attached to the U.S. Army’s 302nd Combat Engineer’s Battalion. We have his wool shirt and jacket, medals and bars, a 1942 battalion yearbook filled with photos and news clippings, and a thick file of original paperwork. Among this precious collection is a love letter from “somewhere in the Philippines” to the woman who would later become his bride.
I wanted to create a display that would keep Grandpa Morton’s service fresh in our memory. Perhaps it would even prompt conversations with my children about patriotism, military service and family history.
First, I needed a tabletop mannequin to display the army shirt and jacket. You can purchase tabletop mannequins, but I built one from a jewelry display bust, which for additional height and stability I secured to a large, inverted clay pot. To help the clothing keep its shape, I stuffed it with polyester fiberfill wrapped in cotton cloth (the latter kept it from sticking to the wool uniform).
Second, I set the yearbook on a stand and laid the decorations out. I didn’t affix the medals or bars to his uniform both. I haven’t researched the proper placement, and I don’t want to poke holes in the wool. Finally came the fitting backdrop—a pallet flag made by a relative—unifying the little assemblage of items.
Embellished framed photo
The most important part of the display, though, is the framed photo of John Morton in uniform. My stepmother-in-law ordered this custom framing job. Wording from his original commendation paperwork lays over a copy of the photo and some World War II decorative embellishments. You can recreate the same look of an old-school typewritten message by using a typewriter font.
Another nice touch are the imitation dog tags secured to the frame. Craft stores typically carry little metal blanks and alphabet stamping sets for those who want to make their own dog tags (here’s a tutorial). Alternatively, you can have one made for you at a sites such as Dogtags.com or Medals of America.
When you own an heirloom, you have to decide whether to protect it in archival storage or enjoy it on display. However, the latter puts it at risk for damage. Therefore, this will be a temporary display for just a few months. It isn’t something I’d advocate for the long-term preservation of these family military heirlooms. John Morton’s fragile paperwork is in archival enclosures, but we display these other items for the value they communicate to our family life today.