Heirloom Basics

By Allison Dolan Premium

Don’t overlook an antique’s potential genealogical value. An item’s date or place of manufacture may help you place your family member then and there. Your ancestors’ belongings can illustrate their tastes, social status and the time period they lived in. Antiques can provide these potential clues:

A military uniform or wedding dress will show your ancestor’s physical size: tall, short, thin or plump.

The design can reveal aspects of your ancestors’ lifestyle. Intricate, custom pieces would indicate that they were well-off financially, for instance. Plain furniture might show that they had humble tastes.

Jewelry, silver and metalwork
Besides signaling social status, these objects are the most likely to be engraved with initials, names or dates. Sometimes they were given as awards; others might have followed an important event, such as a birth or wedding. A locket may contain a photo of the owner’s loved ones.

Books and manuscripts
Letters and diaries reveal what kind of person your ancestor was. Though writing in a book will destroy its value as an “antique,” notes and underlining can provide insight into the owner’s thoughts and interpretations. Knowing what books your ancestors read can also show their level of education.

Toys and collectibles
Memorabilia is a reminder of what was popular and the attitudes of the times. Did Grandpa support Prohibition? Did Great-grandma play with wooden dolls as a child?

Pay attention to heirlooms’ condition and function—they can tell you about an ancestor’s activities. Research the period the heirloom came from, then evaluate what it means for your ancestor to have it.