Display Your Ancestors’ Military Heirlooms

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium
An example of military heirlooms displayed at home.

Honor your ancestors’ military service by creating a unique display with heirlooms, photographs and other memorabilia. Spark new family history conversations and inspire yourself to learn more about their wartime experiences.

My husband’s most prized military heirlooms relate to his grandfather’s service in World War II. John Morton was attached to the U.S. Army’s 302nd Combat Engineer’s Battalion. We have his wool shirt and jacket, medals and bars, a 1942 battalion yearbook filled with photos and news clippings, and a thick file of original paperwork. Among this precious collection is a love letter from “somewhere in the Philippines” to the woman who would later become his bride.


Displaying military heirlooms

I wanted to create a display that would keep Grandpa Morton’s service fresh in our memory. Perhaps it would even prompt conversations with my children about patriotism, military service and family history.

First, I needed a tabletop mannequin to display the army shirt and jacket. You can purchase tabletop mannequins, but I built one from a jewelry display bust, which for additional height and stability I secured to a large, inverted clay pot. To help the clothing keep its shape, I stuffed it with polyester fiberfill wrapped in cotton cloth (the latter kept it from sticking to the wool uniform).

Military memorabilia is often handed down as a remembrance of service time. Here are several flag, medal and military uniform preservation tips.

Second, I set the yearbook on a stand and laid the decorations out. I didn’t affix the medals or bars to his uniform both. I haven’t researched the proper placement, and I don’t want to poke holes in the wool. Finally came the fitting backdrop—a pallet flag made by a relative—unifying the little assemblage of items.


A fitting framed tribute

The most important part of the display, though, is the framed photo of John Morton in uniform. My stepmother-in-law ordered this custom framing job. Wording from his original commendation paperwork lays over a copy of the photo and some World War II decorative embellishments. You can recreate the same look of an old-school typewritten message by using a typewriter font.

A custom frame as part of military heirlooms on display in a home.

Another nice touch are the imitation dog tags secured to the frame. Craft stores typically carry little metal blanks and alphabet stamping sets for those who want to make their own dog tags (here’s a tutorial). Alternatively, you can have one made for you at a sites such as or Medals of America.

When you own an heirloom, you have to decide whether to protect it in archival storage or enjoy it on display. However, the latter puts it at risk for damage. Therefore, this will be a temporary display for just a few months. It isn’t something I’d advocate for the long-term preservation of these family military heirlooms.  John Morton’s fragile paperwork is in archival enclosures, but we display these other items for the value they communicate to our family life today.

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Trace your military ancestors with the Genealogist’s Military Records Field Manual!

This PDF download contains great strategies for finding your ancestors who served in the military, including how to research Civil War ancestors, find military service records and interpret draft registration cards.