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I would like to write a letter, in the present, addressed to my children in the future (no sad reasons involved; I just thought it would be nice to share my emotions of a new parent directly with my grown-up children, if with a long lag).

The paper and ink would need to thus withstand about 20 years of storage. Ideally, the writing should still be legible then, paper not crumbly etc. It wouldn't need to be mint condition, but practically readable and "keepable" - perhaps they want to hold on to the letters.

What combination of materials (paper, ink) would you suggest? Specifically, I am thinking about the following:

  • This question talks about differences in drawing vs. printer paper, and states that drawing paper is more long-lasting. Is it sufficient for two decades of waiting? Is a specific type of paper best advised?
  • Is it practical to pull this off without special storage? I'd like to store the letters with other documents, i.e. dry and safe, but without special storage conditions like air-conditioning. I live in fairly humid climate (UK) but not excessively so.
  • What about ink? I understand most inks fade over time, would this be an issue?
  • Does the choice of ink impact choice of paper and vice versa?
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  • As an aside - you can also scan them and email/backup the letter. Of course, this isn't a solution to your question (I appreciate having the physical letter for sure), but is a quick way to ensure at least some version makes it if the paper/ink fades.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 4:57
  • @BruceWayne Which leads to the next challenge: How do you create a backup copy and store it on a medium that will last about 20 years and still be readable (with regard to data integrity and the availability of suitable readers)?
    – marianoju
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 9:18
  • @marianoju haha, yeah that's what I'm trying to work out too. There are some questions on SuperUser addressing just that. ...It's backups all the way down.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 13:39
  • @marianoju As for availability of suitable readers, I'd imagine png/jpg/gif for images should definitely be readable 20 years from now, and for text txt with UTF-8 (or any 8-bit ASCII-based encoding) should almost certainly be safe (and things like zip will likely be readable for that long, it seems unlikely every copy of unzip would be deleted in the next two decades). Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 21:24
  • @Redwolf Programs I was refering to "reader" as a general term for the necessary hardware, ie. the data input device that reads data from a storage medium, e.g. a card reader for MicroSD cards, a USB port for USB devices, a LTO drive for a LTO cartridge, etc.
    – marianoju
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 9:27

4 Answers 4

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The choice of paper won't be very difficult. There are different types and brands of paper available in craft stores, stationary sections and even copy shops. You'll want to go for "acid free" or "art" paper.

Even cheap copy paper will most likely survive 20 years undamaged, but it will become very yellow and get a brittle texture which increases the risk of tearing. I have some old, cheap copy paper lying around that's almost 30 years old and despite not being white anymore, it's still usable.

The ink is a different story. The safest solution is to write your letter with a graphite pen. Regular blue ink (the kind used in school) fades withing 10-20 years (more or less). There are so many different types of ballpoint ink around, that it's impossible to tell how long the ink of a certain pen will last. You can ask the sales personnell in a craft or stationary shop for special pens that don't fade.

If you happen to have a quill or dip-pen, the safest bet is archival quality Registrars' Ink. Depending on where you live, it's probably a modern variation of iron gall ink that has the special property of actually tanning the paper and thereby permanently dying the paper itself. The moment you write with this ink, it can look almost pale, but the script keeps on darkening over time until it reaches a deep, dark brown. There might also be ballpoint pens available with this type of ink.

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  • 3
    Hm. I would guess that for two decades “regular” writing paper and standard blue or black ink should fare well enough given reasonably good storage conditions? I recently came across a few letters from early secondary school and that’s easily more than that time frame. OTOH, anything left in fluctuating temperature and humidity is bound to degrade quickly, and sunlight is a true “killer”.
    – Stephie
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 21:08
  • 1
    But considering that this answer will probably help write letters to yet unplanned grandchildren, it certainly deserves a +1.
    – Stephie
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 21:16
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    ISO 12757-2 specifies the minimum quality requirements for ballpoint pens (refillable or non-refillable) and their refills for documentary use. That might help when looking for pen and ink.
    – marianoju
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 9:21
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    I reckon your 10-20 years ink lifetime is pessimistic for decent but common stationery supplies. I recently came across some high school and undergrad notes from 20-25 years ago written in fountain pen on ordinary lined paper. They were almost as good as new. Some would have used Lamy blue-black, but I generally kept one pen with black and another with blue, Parker Penman in both cases, which was pretty high quality and is now discontinued.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 13:39
  • Interesting note about iron gall ink: true incaustum :-). Similarly, India inks would also stand up well, especially the lacquer-based ones containing lampblack.
    – Suncat2000
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 18:25
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I have real life experience with this scenario. My father wrote a letter to me on the day I came home from the hospital. He wrote it on yellow legal pad paper with a standard ball point pen. He then folded it and sealed it in a normal #10 envelope. It was filed among the other family papers in a wooden file cabinet which travelled with my family from New York state to the Bahamas to Florida. The file cabinet was beaten up and severely aged by my eighteenth birthday when my mother, by then a widow, delivered the letter to me. We steamed the envelop open and found that the legal pad paper inside had faded to a tannish light brown. The ink was clearly visible and the message was priceless. Forty years later, that envelope now rests in my safe and is among my most valued possessions. It is brittle and one of the folds has broken partially free, but it is still perfectly readable.

So my answer to you is to write your letter now, before the perfect archival paper and permanent ink arrives. Get your thoughts down on paper with whatever tools you have available in this moment. If you later transcribe it onto a better medium, that is a bonus. But 99% of the treasure of what you are trying to create here is in your words, in the personal nuances of your penmanship and the flavor of your word choice. None of that treasure lies within the paper your words are written on.

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  • Great post, thank you for sharing. Yes, this is is what I'm trying to create. I just don't want to lose the words to the vagaries of cellulose chemistry...
    – Bennet
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 9:49
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I think this is much easier than the other answer suggest. As long as your storage stays dry you should be fine for a few decades with any kind of paper and any kind of ink pen or a regular pencil.

I have numerous handwritten notes from the 1950s written with different ink pens on different pieces of paper. As long as they stayed dry all of them are still perfectly clear and legible. The paper is somewhat yellow but there is no deterioration visible on the ink. In museums you can see handwritten notes several centuries old. As long as the paper stays dry it will easily last a century or two without any special ink or paper.

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  • Agreed. I also still have lots of notes and sketches from more than 20 years ago which are still perfectly fine (they have been stored in boxes and drawers most of the time).
    – Joachim
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 13:33
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    I disagree. High temperature and too high or too low a humidity can greatly degrade many papers and inks. Standard papers are high in lignin, an acidic component that will yellow, brittle, and disintegrate the paper over time, especially in attic temperatures. Modern ball-point and many liquid inks tend to fade pretty quickly, in a matter of years or months. Bank checks are examples of archival-quality paper; I've bought "check writing" pens at office supply stores with inks that contained pigments (not dyes) that were acid-free and claim writing will remain intact 20 years or more.
    – Suncat2000
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 18:33
  • @Suncat2000 Those are all good points, but I think the purpose of this answer was that under normal circumstances the longevity of written notes is not something you have to worry about that much within this time frame. If written papers are stored normally, which we can assume means in room temperature, in the dark, and without great variations in humidity and temperature, they should be fine in twenty years.
    – Joachim
    Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 13:05
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    On the other hand (@Joachim) as this is a planned task, there's no harm apart from a little cost in using materials more likely to last even longer. I have some notes in a lab book from 12 years ago that show signs of fading on the generic ballpoint, but not on the fountain pen demonstrating the variability. Protection from sunlight (UV) is probably most important though, so a closed book or in a drawer would be sensible (some inks fade pretty quickly in a few weeks in direct sun)
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 11:45
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    @ChrisH Defintely! I just liked this answer because it points out that if you want to have written notes to remain legible for 20 years, you don't need to invest in special materials, you just need to store the notes somewhere 'safe'. Making this a more practical answer to the question and not giving off slightly warped ideas about their longevity.
    – Joachim
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 12:02
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Both papers and inks are available as "archival quality" products. "Acid free" is a similar designation. These products are manufactured to degrade little over time. Just look for those terms at any arts supply or office supply store. As long as your letters aren't stored in an extreme high-temperature and/or high-humdity environment, they should fare well for decades.

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