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.”
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 TheFamilyCurator.com website.