Family heirlooms are an important part of our heritage and lineage, but they pose a common dilemma: whether to use them, display them, or hide them away. Many family heirlooms are useful and were handed down with the intention of keeping them in the family for ongoing practical use. But the pressure to continue to pass on heirlooms makes us to hesitate to use them too often.
An heirloom can be any item in your family that’s been passed from one generation to another, but heirlooms tend to have common qualities and themes. We’ve discussed some of the most common types of family heirlooms below, but many families have heirloom items that are unique to their family alone.
This guide will help you learn to both use and preserve your family’s heirlooms to pass on to future generations.
Jewelry: One of the most common family heirloom items—and one of the most delicate and important to protect—is jewelry. Heirloom jewelry should be worn on special occasions because daily use leads to more wear, tear, and repair. Keep jewelry pieces clean and stored inside individually padded airtight boxes to protect metals and stones from oxygen degradation. Jewelry should not be kept in the master bedroom because this is the first place thieves look for such items. Heirloom and other valuable jewelry should be stored in a fireproof safe, which can be bolted down inside a master closet.
Weapons: Antique weapons and guns are among the most commonly passed down items in families. Clean guns after each use for top maintenance and performance. A fireproof gun safe is the best place to store guns for household safety and gun preservation. Many other types of weapons should be stored in protective cases inside a fireproof safe for the same reasons. Many antique weapons are beautiful, durable, and perfect for display in safe and well-protected homes. But the ones that we actually use tend to be the same ones we want to store away and protect the most.
China, silver, and crystal: These common but delicate family heirlooms take the cake when it comes to the fear of use. Most heirloom china is high quality, but it wasn’t made for the modern heavy-duty kitchen and dishwasher. Heirloom tableware should be saved for special occasions and all items should be hand-washed and dried. Store items in a china cabinet—after all, that’s what China cabinets were intended for—with a glass front that showcases the tableware without constant use.
Musical instruments: The more an instrument is played, the harder it is to get rid of it, so many are passed on to younger generations in hopes they’ll appreciate the instrument enough to play it too. Many musical instruments are delicate, sensitive, and difficult to store with complete protection. Store instruments in correctly sized padded cases. Original cases may require replacement with newer models for optimal protection. Keep instruments away from sunlight and moisture, and store cases in rooms that maintain a consistently comfortable temperature throughout the year.
Quilts and clothing: Fabric and textile heirlooms should also be kept away from sunlight and moisture. Store items like wedding dresses in protective, reusable garment bags (not dry cleaning bags) and hang in a closet or wardrobe. Dry cleaned items should be sufficiently aired out before long-term storage to reduce the level of chemicals that can become trapped inside the garment bag. Choose a breathable but durable cloth garment bag to promote air circulation while keeping dust at bay.
Clothing and quilts can also be stored in a hope chest or plastic storage tub, as long as items laid flat are not crushed and mothballs are added. Anyone with a large number of antique and heirloom clothing items should consider a wardrobe or armoire for easily accessible storage. Items that you wish to preserve and will not use can be vacuum sealed for long-term space-saving storage. Quilts should be used, but make an effort to minimize the number of washings to avoid long-term wear and tear.
Recipes and photographs: Printed items are easily damaged, but thanks to technology they’re much easier to protect than they used to be. Great Grandma’s entire recipe box should be scanned and stored digitally, as should old photos. Keep a backup copy of digital photo and recipe files inside a fireproof safe. Put each original recipe inside a protective plastic sleeve before returning it to the original recipe box. Store original photos in acid-free photo albums. Many photo collections are in the original albums and should be kept as such if the album provides sufficient protection. Store albums inside dark, airtight cabinets in a moisture-free environment.
With some proper care, your special family heirlooms should stay in shape and continue to be passed down to future generations.