Posted by Ancestry Team on March 16, 2016 in Website

Whatever the age, condition, or value of your favorite family heirlooms, without a record of its past, your grand-dad’s pocket watch is just another family trinket. It’s a sad truth genealogists see far too often when it comes to family photos, documents, and memorabilia — without some documented history, our precious keepsakes are just “stuff.”Antique Film Camera, Photo Album Old Pictures

To preserve these physical reminders of the past, family historians can begin by preserving the stories they hold. Otherwise, future generations may be tempted to toss out unidentified photos, unlabeled heirlooms, and unmarked documents as so much unwanted clutter.

Anyone can take this simple first step in preserving heirlooms. Purchase a package of acid-free 25% cotton rag paper (the kind used for resumes) and write down the story of your keepsake. Use a pen that’s comfortable for you, aiming for permanent archival ink, if possible. It’s fine to type or use a computer word-processor, but do add your handwritten signature for a personal touch. In your own words, as if you were speaking to a favorite relative, describe the object and why it’s important to you and your family. The physical description will help if the history and object become separated, and serve as a reminder if you choose to assemble the heirloom history pages in a book or photo album.

Include previous owners, their birth and death dates if you know them, and previous locations. Make sure to tell how you came to acquire the object and who you would like to be the next caretaker. As you begin writing, other facts and stories may come to mind. For more inspiration, download the Heirloom History form at The Family Curator to print or photocopy.

You may be tempted to skip this step, but don’t. Your grandfather’s collection of vintage fishing flies might look nice in an archival box, but they will be so much more valuable to your own angler descendants when they understand that granddad and his two brothers hand-tied the flies the winter before they enlisted to serve in a war from which only two men returned.

With your heirloom history complete, turn to preserving your keepsake by using appropriate archival storage containers stored in a location that has consistent temperature and humidity, typically, inside your home. Avoid garages, attics, and basements where temperatures fluctuate and moisture, pests, or molds can grow.

Keep a copy of your heirloom history with the item, for example, tucked inside a vase or photo album. Don’t attach with glue or tape as this can harm the object. Keep another copy together with your family history work. You might create a special Heirloom Album with photos and notes as a personal family legacy.

Documenting your family heirlooms is an important first step in preserving your family history, and one that can make a long-term difference in a keepsake’s survival to the next generation.

About the author: Denise May Levenick is the author of How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally and writes frequently about family photos and projects at website. 


  1. Malcolm Northrup

    To bad these stories can’t include TXT, PDF and other formats that Ancestry itself had us create in times past. Now these stories can’t be view unless downloaded separately and viewed one at a time. Sad!

  2. Janice

    This is great – thanks! I have already done something similar with an old pewter set that dates from the 1830s and has been in the family all that time – from mother to daughter, to daughter, to daughter. I put it inside one of the pots but think I will look at that Heirloom History form and make sure details are available elsewhere. I have other family treasures and should do likewise!

  3. Linda E

    I agree with Malcomb, I thought I was preserving the family documents and photos on ancestry. But now it takes an act of Congress for even me to view them. Why make something which was working well, more difficult. I don’t understand and you charge me !! Make sense of this for me.

  4. Robin

    A great idea! I sometimes think about doing this kind of thing, but always put it aside. I think I’d better get busy!

  5. Ronald Rose

    My family heirloom are some historical documents. My question is, does anyone know the best way to preserve these documents? I have had several people ask about having them put in a museum, but they are very personal to me as my dad was involved in this. He passed away in 2002.

  6. Caroline Storm

    Excellent instructions as to how family ties may, and should be, kept for our descendants. I have already given my son a vase he wanted from the 1860s, and all the information as to its background. Written out by, me for all my grandchildren and all of theirs. He keeps it in that vase, a Wedgewood.

  7. lana

    Preserving family items and information are wonderful ideas!
    That is the exact reason I have been paying and adding my history to ancestry database. Sadly, it has become increasingly difficult to access my history that I compiled without paying for each item.
    My advice is to make my own hard copies and keep them myself. And share with my family whenever possible!!

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