To ensure that your family heirlooms meet a happier fate than poor Fluffy did, we’ve outlined safe, tested prescriptions for preserving 10 common kinds of family heirlooms. If you possess a keepsake that doesn’t fit neatly into these categories, use the tips prescribed for items of the same material (paper, wood, cloth, metal)—and see the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ Web site to find advice and professional conservators to consult.
Keep the documents unfolded in archival folders or envelopes made of Mylar or acid- and lignin-free paper. Store those in a flat file or manuscript box. You should always transcribe the information electronically to preserve the data. Scan or photograph the documents and make copies on acid-free paper; store those as you would the originals.
Keeping extra sets of copies with other people is also a good backup.
Doctor’s orders: As with paper documents, you need to protect newspapers and clippings from light, moisture and heat. Remove staples if you can do so without tearing the paper. Has your clipping been laminated? You can’t undo lamination—which is why preservation professionals recommend against it—so your best bet is to transcribe the article and scan it or make photocopies. Keep clippings unfolded and separate in acid-free folders between sheets of buffered paper. Polyester sleeves are good for fragile clippings. Store whole newspapers unfolded and flat in archival boxes.
Scrapbooks and photo albums
Photographs and tintypes
Dolls and toys
Quilts and needlework
Hand-sewn pieces often include interesting bits of information about your ancestors’ lives. So follow these tips to save that sampler, keep that quilt and defend that doily.
Doctor’s orders: Those colors can run if you try washing the flag yourself, so it’s best to consult a professional conservator about cleaning options. Your main concern should be to protect the flag from light, moisture, dirt and insects. You can extend the fabric’s lifespan by keeping it in an acid-free, triangular flag box. (Though you shouldn’t fly the flag, the supply companies listed in the box at left do sell flag boxes with windows for display. Just be sure to keep it out of direct sunlight.) Interleave the fabric with tissue paper, or use unbleached cotton if you live in a desert climate. In a tropical climate, you could use a tin container with a silica gel packet enclosed to trap moisture.
- Wash your hands (and skip the lotion) before handling an heirloom.
- Keep the heirloom away from direct sunlight, extreme cold and heat, moisture, dirt and insects.
- Store heirlooms in archival, acid-free and appropriately sized containers.
- Clean items before storing them, but only if you can do so safely.
- Photograph heirlooms to create a visual record in case of disaster or loss.Consult an expert before attempting any major repairs or treatments.
- Do anything you can’t undo.
- Let anyone with dirty hands touch the heirlooms.
- Stuff your heirlooms in a cardboard box or wooden chest.
- Pass originals around at the reunion.
- Store heirlooms in the attic or the basement.
- Forget to record each heirloom’s stories and provenance.
- Archival Methods, (866) 877-7050
- Caring for Your Family Treasures: A Concise Guide to Caring for Your Cherished Belongings by Jane S. and Richard W. Long (Harry N. Abrams)
- Gaylord Brothers, (800) 962-9580
- Hollinger Metal Edge, (800) 634-0491
- Light Impressions, (800) 828-6216
- Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar (Fireside)
- University Products, (800) 628-1912