Don't overlook an antique's potential genealogical value. An item's date
or place of manufacture may help you place your family member then and
there. Your ancestors' belongings can illustrate their tastes, social
status and the time period they lived in. Antiques can provide these potential
Clothing: A military uniform or wedding dress will show your
ancestor's physical size: tall, short, thin or plump.
Furniture: can reveal aspects of your ancestors' lifestyle.
Intricate, custom pieces would indicate that they were well-off financially,
for instance. Plain furniture might show that they had humble tastes.
Jewelry, silver and metalwork: Besides signaling social status,
these objects are the most likely to be engraved with initials, names
or dates. Sometimes they were given as awards; others might have followed
an important event, such as a birth or wedding. A locket may contain
a photo of the owner's loved ones.
Books and manuscripts: Letters and diaries reveal what kind
of person your ancestor was. (For more on diaries, see the June 2000
issue of Family Tree Magazine.) Though writing in a book will
destroy its value as an "antique," notes and underlining
can provide insight into the owner's thoughts and interpretations.
Knowing what books your ancestors read can also show their level of
Pay attention to heirlooms' condition and function they can tell
you about an ancestor's activities. Research the period the heirloom came
from, then evaluate what it means for your ancestor to have it.
Coming out of the Closet (or Attic or Basement...)
Although logic tells us that dark, musty basements and dusty, moth-ridden
attics are the worst locales to store heirlooms, somehow that's where
many end up. Do you know what treasures your (or your relatives') home
is hiding? Be an heirloom hero invade your closets! Rescue those
riches! Follow these steps:
Get it out of harm's way. No matter what you've got
furniture, clothing, art, photographs, books excessive sunlight,
extreme temperature, moisture, dust, bugs and mold are its enemies.
Remove heirlooms from places where they're subject to those conditions.
Assess the condition. Sometimes your efforts to save a piece
could actually damage it. Before you do anything, learn how to care
for that particular object by reading a book on preservation or contacting
a conservator (especially if the piece is in bad condition).
Clean it up. Use your newfound knowledge to revive your heirloom
carefully. Be wary of using polishes and cleaning products.
Never alter furniture's original finish.
Store or display it properly. Unfortunately, usage often shortens
an object's life (as well as decreasing its value). Keep books and
furniture dusted and protect objects from getting scratched, dented
or broken. Store papers and photographs in acid-free containers.
Tell its story. Don't leave your descendants in the dark:
Identify the heirloom, record its condition and take pictures. Explain
what you know about the item and its owner, and add the story to your
For guidelines on preserving specific types of heirlooms and a list of
conservation organizations, see "Saving
Your Family Treasures," an article from the National Endowment
for the Humanities' My History is America's History project.