Follow these six steps to research and preserve the stories of your family's treasures.
Were you lucky enough to inherit pieces of your ancestors' pasts?
If so, how much do you know about those heirlooms? Do you even
know what they are?
Most of our forebears didn't think to
inventory their everyday belongings. After all, hair receivers,
sock darners and bed-warming pans were about as exciting to them
as curling irons and electric blankets are to us. But these
objects can tell us a lot about how our ancestors lived.
Even if you can identify Nana Ferol's ceramic serving platter, do
you know how old it is or where she got it? Maybe it was a wedding
or birthday present. Perhaps she inherited the platter from her
great-grandmother, and it's older than you think. Start
investigating the stories behind your family treasures — and
preserving them for future generations — by following these six
1. Ask relatives about the keepsake. This is the most
important step in identifying an heirloom. Find out who owned the
object and when, what it was used for, where it was kept and why
it's significant. You might be surprised by what your family
already knows about the object.
2. Study the object's shape, size, color and material
substance. Does it look handmade or mass-produced? Does it
seem to be missing any parts? Could it be part of a larger device?
Guess what the object might be — but don't make assumptions. For
example, you could easily mistake a rumbler bell, which was used
in Colonial times to frighten birds away from gardens, for a
sleigh bell, which had an entirely different purpose.
3. Look for a patent date and number. The date can clue
you in to which ancestor originally owned the item. For instance,
if the date's 1903, and your great-great-uncle died in 1892, you
know the object didn't belong to him. Armed with the patent
number, you can easily trace the object's patent application,
which could include original drawings. Just type the number into
the US Patent and Trademark Office's online database.
4. Hit the books. Look up the item in a guide such as
Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2013 (Krause), Dictionary of American Hand Tools:
A Pictorial Synopsis compiled by Alvin Sellens (Schiffer)
and 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, 5th edition, by Linda
Campbell Franklin (Krause). Old catalogs also are great resources because
they contain pictures and the original prices of antiques.
Bloomingdale's Illustrated 1886 Catalog by Bloomingdale Brothers
(Dover Publications), for example, includes goods from
clothing to jewelry to household items. You also might check the
classified ads in old magazines and newspapers for pictures of
Look for more clues in old diaries, journals and family
photographs. If Nana Ferol did receive that platter on her wedding
day, she might have written about it in her diary. Or you might
find a photo of wedding gifts, including the platter, among her
5. Keep the heirloom in tiptop shape. Be sure to handle
the item with clean, dry, lotion-free hands, and store it in a
place with moderate temperature and humidity. For tips on
preserving fabrics, ceramics, glass, furniture and metal, consult
a conservation guide such as Caring for Your Family Treasures:
Heritage Preservation by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long (Harry
N. Abrams). Or contact The American Institute for
Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works to find a professional conservator in your area.
6. Record the keepsake's story. After all your detective
work, don't forget to record what you've learned. Create an
inventory of heirlooms and be sure to include the object's
original name and an explanation of how it was used. That way,
your descendants won't have to play the guessing game.
From the May 2004 Preserving Family History