Heirloom Hints

By Carol Prisant 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.


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.


Letters and diaries reveal what kind of person your ancestor was. (For more on diaries, see the June 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.) 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.


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.


Although logic tells us that dark, musty basements and dusty, moth-ridden attics are the worst locales to store heirlooms, somehow that’s where many end up. Do you know what treasures your (or your relatives’) home is hiding? Be an heirloom hero — invade your closets! Rescue those riches! Follow these steps:

1. GET IT OUT OF HARM’S WAY. No matter what you’ve got — furniture, clothing, art, photographs, books – excessive sunlight, extreme temperature, moisture, dust, bugs and mold are its enemies. Remove heirlooms from places where they’re subject to those conditions.

2. ASSESS THE CONDITION. Sometimes your efforts to save a piece could actually damage it. Before you do anything, learn how to care for that particular object by reading a book on preservation or contact a conservator (especially if the piece is in bad condition).

3. CLEAN IT UP. Use your newfound knowledge to revive your heirloom — carefully. Be wary of using polishes and cleaning products. Never alter furniture’s original finish.

4. STORE OR DISPLAY IT PROPERLY. Unfortunately, usage often shortens an object’s life (as well as decreasing its value). Keep books and furniture dusted and protect objects from getting scratched, dented or broken. Store papers and photographs in acid-free containers.

5. TELL ITS STORY. Don’t leave your descendants in the dark: Identify the heirloom, record its condition and take pictures. Explain what you know about the item and its owner, and add the story to your family history.

For guidelines on preserving specific types of heirlooms and a list of conservation organizations, see “Saving Your Family Treasures” <>, an article from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ My History is America’s History project.

From the February 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine