3 handy hints for learning about your family heirlooms


05 March 2020
Here we share three useful ways for family historians to learn more about their family heirlooms and collectables

‘Charts, dates and names alone may not be enough. Family heirlooms, passed from one generation to the next, however, can tangibly connect family past with family future. Seeing them, touching them, cherishing them not only breathes substance into lives long gone. It makes personal history feel real’ – so writes Melody Amsel-Arieli in the April issue of Family Tree in her article, ‘Heirlooms for family historians’.

Melody’s quite right and here we share four useful ways to learn more about those cherished - but sometimes mysterious - family items, handed down through the generations.

1. Provenance

Are there any receipts or documents (a will perhaps) showing how the item came into your family? Was it a wedding gift, or something sent home from a family member working overseas? Do the original manuals exist, say for a lawn mower, or the original box for a hat? Such documentation or packaging will help you date and place the item’s origin.

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2. Makers’ marks

Are there any makers’ marks or serial numbers? Silver is perhaps the most widely known, with the hallmarks on sterling silver precisely recording the year and place an item was hallmarked, as well as indicating who the original maker was. Many other items have numbers and codes that can help you trace their history too. Vintage Singer sewing machines, for instance, have a serial number, using which you can search the internet and establish the date that the machine left the factory, giving you a firm post quem date.

3. Photographic evidence

Look through old family photos. Can you see your treasured heirloom in use, back in the day? Perhaps a favourite brooch being worn? A teapot being used? A piece of furniture in pride of place? Perhaps copy any relevant photos and keep them with your jewellery, or with the piece of furniture, in a drawer say, and a short description explaining what it means to you and how you came about the item, to your descendants.

Originally published in March 2020, reviewed March 2023.

Image: sudhith xavier Unsplash