It all happened so fast. First a storm in 2001 dumped 26 inches of snow outside Louisa Jaggar's 100-year-old house near Baltimore. Then the temperature rose. As the snow melted, she heard a noise that sounded like a train. In just seconds, 2-1/2 feet of icy water was swirling through her basement.
"I was standing at the top [of the steps] sobbing," Ms. Jaggar says. "I had put all my children's cardboard memory boxes in the basement. Everything was disintegrating. This was my children's art. These things weren't important to anyone else, but they were very important to our family."
It's an all-too-common story. Cherished possessions - some with monetary value, others, like Jaggar's, with sentimental attachment - get damaged or destroyed. Yet in most cases that loss is avoidable, preservation experts say. WIth a knowledge of basic conservation techniques, owners can prolong the life of everything from wedding gowns and ancestral photographs to baseball cards, books, and grandmother's silver.
After Jaggar surveyed the soggy damage in her basement, she turned to a friend, Don Williams, for advice. As senior conservator of the Smithsonian Institution, he has spent 30 years preserving the nation's treasures.
"He helped save the Wright Brothers' airplane, and he's helped save Archie Bunker's chair," she says. "And I'm sitting there asking, 'How do you save the macaroni art that my daughter made?' "
Mr. Williams was sympathetic. "These are things that happen to a lot of people. They try to save stuff, but they lose it because they don't know how to save it."
Knowing how to save begins with knowing where to store things - or where not to store them. Williams calls basements and attics the "archenemies of valuables." Basements are too damp, attics too hot and dry.
Other archenemies of preservation include light, extremes of temperature, water, dirt, bugs, and pollution. Oh, yes, and don't forget hands. "The No. 1 cause of preventable damage to stuff is handling," says Williams, who teamed up with Jaggar to write "Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions" (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $16).
In addition to storing things in the wrong place, he says, people keep them in the wrong boxes or wrapped in the wrong kind of paper.
The wrong boxes cost Linda Koopersmith a collection of cherished Easter eggs that her daughter had decorated over a 12-year period. She stored her holiday decorations in plastic stackable drawers in a backyard storage shed at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif. During torrential rains last winter, the shed roof leaked in one corner, spilling water into the top drawer. Her eggs were ruined.
Learning the techniques of proper care can sound like a daunting task. Yet many materials for preservation are simple and relatively inexpensive. They include white gloves for handling papers and objects, archival boxes for storing papers, acid-free tissue paper, cotton swabs, pest traps, lint-free cloths, distilled water, and a soft artist's brush for cleaning fragile items.
Even Jaggar's original question to Williams - How do you save macaroni art? - involved a simple solution. "Place wet artifacts in a plastic tub or bucket with plenty of silica gel and cover with an airtight lid," Williams advises. "Be sure the tub is big enough to lay your object flat on the silica gel."
Jaggar was also able to salvage her son's soggy christening gown from the basement. She spread it out on a clean fiberglass window screen, then put it in the bathtub to let water run over it. That removed the dirt without abrading the cloth. She used Triton, a very mild detergent. After it dried, she stuffed it with acid-free tissue and stored it in an archival box in the hall closet.
Objects are not the only things that need to be preserved. Another essential element is intangible: the stories behind these belongings. Without them, sentimental objects lose their value.
"We're not just saying, 'Save this stuff,' " Jaggar notes. "We're saying, 'Save this stuff and all the memories with it.' That's very rich."
When people show Jaggar and Williams old photographs, they often have no idea who is in the pictures. "In a family, when you know every person in a photograph and what they were doing that day, that's very powerful," Jaggar says. She and Williams recommend labeling photos with as much identifying information as possible - date, names, location, and occasion.
Carolyn Curasi, an assistant marketing professor at Georgia State University who has studied family heirlooms and their meaning, calls stories "the history transfer" that is passed along with objects. "People want these stories to be told. They want to live on through their objects long after they're gone."
It's a lesson Cindy Evarts of Fulton, Md., learned when she and her family were cleaning out their basement before a move. When she found a strange object with spikes, she told her husband, "Get rid of it, it's horrible."
But he remembered stories her father had told him about being the son of missionaries in Japan. Mrs. Evarts contacted her grandmother and learned that this object, made of bamboo and metal, was used by imperial guards to protect the emperor. That information changed her opinion of it. "This ugly thing has now increased in value in my eyes because of the stories," she says.
Evarts also owns a quilt her great-grandmother made as a young girl. "The quilt is certainly something you worry about how to preserve," she says. "Right now it's packaged up. We don't want the light to hit it, and we don't want it to fall apart."
Not everything should be kept under wraps, of course. Owners must weigh their desire to save things for future generations against the pleasure of enjoying them now.
As American homes fill with more and more possessions, Williams sees a growing national desire to preserve cherished objects. Television programs such as the "Antiques Roadshow" feed that interest. And as baby boomers grow older, he says, "they're trying to find some touchstone with the continuity of history."
It isn't even necessary for those touchstones to have great value. Monetary worth is typically not the ultimate factor. "For most people, deep down in their hearts, sentimental value trumps everything," says Williams. "The nonfinancial aspects are extremely powerful and not to be disregarded."
A humbled Jaggar, still thinking about her improperly stored possessions in the basement, agrees. "After the flood, I would have given away the silver and crystal if I could have saved my son's poetry, the photographs that were downstairs, and my daughter's art," she says. "That stuff you can't go out and buy."
Don Williams suggests the following steps to help in preserving the special belongings that make up what he calls the "Museum of You."
• First, decide what you want to keep and why. No one can save everything.
• Avoid storing favorite possessions in basements and attics. If those are the only spaces available, take precautions. In basements, store valuables on high shelves, or stack them on wood planks. In attics, ventilate with an automatic fan to keep the heat down.
• Never wrap silver in plastic cling wrap.
• Never hang paintings above a radiator or heat vent, or on a wall that receives direct sunlight.
• Do not use bare hands when handling dull ceramics such as terra-cotta and raku. They are easily stained by skin oils. Fingerprints can be permanently disfiguring.
• To display old photos, make duplicates and display them, storing the originals.
• Do not glue photos in an album. Use corner mounts on pages of plain rag paper or archival buffered paper.
• Store textiles in an environment with low light or no light, moderate humidity and temperature, no bugs or mold, and in containers such as archival boxes and acid-free tissue.
• Antique art glass and stained glass often become "crizzled" with a network of fine surface cracks, resulting in a frosty appearance. Some ceramics that are very fragile develop crazed glazes. Do not handle these any more than necessary because they are easily damaged.