Discover Your Heirlooms' History
How much do you know about your family's keepsakes? We'll show you how to uncover their stories and preserve them for generations to come.

As a child, I was fascinated by the antiques in my paternal grandparents' Ohio home: an English ironstone tea set, a copper bed warmer and an assortment of thingamajigs they'd repurposed as lamps. But I never thought to ask where these antiques came from, how old they were or even what they were until after my grandparents had died.

Although it's too late to go straight to the source, it's not too late to learn the histories of these heirlooms and their significance. In doing so, I've gained insight into my grandparents' personalities and their ways of life. You can start investigating the stories behind your family's keepsakes—and preserving them for future generations—by following these 10 steps.

Examine home sources.
Lucky for me, my grandmother Maralyn Eisenstodt left a lot of clues about the origins of her precious belongings. (I learned this after asking my stepmom what she knew about them.) Before she died, Maralyn photographed each one and wrote captions on the backs of the prints, such as "Grandma Gustie's two cut-glass tumblers from a wedding set" and "56-year-old milk-glass goblets—Christmas Dad to me." The most interesting caption—"One of pair of OLD Hogarth prints bought Cincy when Dad needed shoes more"—reveals the sacrifices my grandparents made so they could afford the art they loved.

Your relatives may have left similar clues—not just on the backs of photographs, but also in diaries and journals. If your great-grandmother received a set of dishes on her wedding day, she might have written about it in her diary. Ditto if she saved for months to buy that china.

The best way to picture an heirloom in its original setting, though, is to look for it in old photos. Want to know where your mother got the dresser in her bedroom? Check out photos of relatives' homes. You might find the same piece in a picture of your great-aunt's childhood bedroom—and what do you know, it once had a mirror attached to it.

If you can track down household inventories, you're really in luck. Your relatives might have created these documents in case of burglary or fire. They likely would have stored them in safety-deposit boxes or with trusted family or friends. You also might find an inventory of an ancestor's estate in his or her probate file, which most likely resides at the county courthouse (see the June 2003 Family Tree Magazine for details on accessing courthouse records from afar).

Maralyn created a room-by-room inventory almost a decade before her death, and she gave copies to both of her children. Examining this list today, I can see which pieces she treasured the most (from her annotations, such as "very valuable") and even how much she paid for them. From this postscript, I also know she was always thinking ahead: "Check shoeboxes on my closet shelf for mad money, which I sometimes keep when I'm mad; beats lifting a mattress!"