Take a closer look at your family heirlooms


09 January 2024
Janet Few encourages us to take a look at our heirlooms and consider preserving the stories attached to them. In this way, it is much more likely these items will be treasured by the generations that come after us

What is an heirloom? It is something that we treasure because of its family significance.

It is an item that has been, or will be, handed down within the family. Why is this? It is because it is something that brings back memories of a person, an event or a place. Without any associated narrative, heirlooms are examples of material culture. To put it bluntly, they are things. Some are attractive, some are useful, other heirlooms are neither but their appearance and utility are not why we keep them; they are important to us because of their associations.

Unless we know that story, an object that is visually pleasing or serves a useful purpose might provoke a positive response but we are unlikely to have an emotional attachment to it and it won’t be the item that we save if the house is burning down. Without the stories that are attached to those items, much of their significance is lost.

We are the custodians of heirlooms that are currently in our possession. Over the years, collections of heirlooms are passed on but in the process are curated and weeded. Each death, each house move, leads to a potential slimming
down of the family archive. What is kept and what is lost depends on the temperament of the current curator; some people do not feel the pull of heirloom culture.

It also depends on their personal association with the items, or the people connected to them. With the passing of generations, the links to past family members weaken, particularly if the custodian did not know the owner of the item personally.

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With smaller homes and streamlined living, the space that is available for keeping treasures also has an impact. An item of jewellery is more likely to be retained than a Welsh dresser. Even if items are kept, in families with several siblings or potential heirs, collections are split up and removed from the context of associated items.

The final factor to consider is knowledge. Remember, it is the story associated with an item that turns a thing into an heirloom. If no one knows its significance, there may be no incentive to treasure it. To turn your things into heirlooms and to make it more likely that they will be treasured in the future, you need to ensure that the stories behind those objects are preserved. 

Text adapted from an in-depth article on family heirlooms by Janet Few, published in February 2024 Family Tree. Get your copy HERE.

About the author

Janet Few is a family and social historian, author and educator, with a particular interest in women’s history and material culture. She runs heirlooms workshops for family history societies.