Summer is here and when the warm weather hits, most people are thinking about beaches and backyard barbecues. Me? I’m thinking estate sales!
That’s right, not only am I a collector of ancestors, I also dabble in everything else, well, old. My mostly willing husband and I will grab coffee, our stops mapped, and head out on a Saturday adventure. My plan is always the same: head straight to the kitchen in search of vintage bakeware, Le Creuset or, if I’m lucky, a pie bird that I’ve never seen. Even though I really love the hunt, I’m not unaware that some items for sale were, at one time, a family’s treasured heirlooms. Heartbreaking.
I know firsthand as a genealogist that many family members will automatically leave special items with you, because they know you will protect them. And, you do. But you probably wonder how you are going to preserve those same heirlooms for future generations. If your kids are interested in genealogy, then you have no issue, because you know those heirlooms will be passed on and their stories preserved. However, not every genealogist is that lucky. What can you do to ensure the items will continue to be a part of your family’s history?
The first thing I suggest is to snap a photo of the treasured item then upload it to your online family tree, family tree software or into your cloud storage. (I keep a private online tree. If yours is public, remember it’s for all the world to see.) Once your heirloom photos are uploaded, you can share them with anyone who is looking into your family line. Just be sure to include a couple lines about the item’s history. Who did it belong to? Was it a gift? Remember, it’s the stories that make our heirlooms priceless.
A perfect example is a well-loved potato dish I was given that has seen better days. Its dainty handle is missing bits and there are too many chips to count. If I saw this at an estate sale, sadly, it would not be making the trip home. But, guess what? That sad little potato dish is proudly on display in my dining room because of its story that connects me to the owner, my great-grandmother, who received it as a wedding gift in 1891.
Second, print the photos and put them in an “heirloom photo album” along with their handwritten story. Don’t forget to include the owner’s name and how they fit into your family tree so a future genealogist can easily connect the dots. Your family will have a photographic and written record of these heirlooms to enjoy, even if the actual item doesn’t survive.
It’s also important to protect the heirlooms you’re keeping a watchful eye over. Are you storing them properly? Learn what type of environment each heirloom requires to keep it in the best condition. Check out http://archaeologymuseum.ca/ for general information but also search online for your specific items' care recommendations. Do you have a piece of jewelry or furniture that has more than sentimental value? If so, get your heirlooms appraised before storing them away and ideally get insurance on them in the amount of their combined worth. Money won’t replace the heirlooms if something happens, but it can soften the loss.
Our hope is that our heirlooms stay in the family but maybe your items are of historical significance. If you have decided they should be donated to a historical society or museum one day, those wishes would need to be made known. Put your wishes in writing, ideally in a will, but at the very least on a notarized paper you keep with someone you trust.
As a genealogist, protecting your family heirlooms is both your responsibility and your joy. Stay safe and happy hunting!
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and Association of Professional Genealogists. She is a board member as well as president of the Niagara County Genealogical Society. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.