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The Spiker Gazette
Oxford, WVVolume  10Issue  9September  2016
In this Issue:Treasured Family Heirlooms
Heirloom Inventory


Treasured Family Heirlooms

Written by:  Bobbi Spiker-Conley

     As the youngest of four children, I received a fair share of discarded hand-me-downs -- clothes, toys, makeup, furniture -- but I didn't mind. I didn't think of the gifts as someone's cast-offs. With a few notable exceptions, I was just happy to receive something that my (much admired) siblings had once worn, or played with, or slept on. The items may not have been worth much by the time they got to me, but the feeling of connecting with my brother and sisters was, as they say, priceless.

     Many years later, I still enjoy receiving hand-me-downs. It's just that now I call them by a different name -- family heirlooms. And yes, regardless of their age, or their condition, or their resale value, they are priceless.   

     Priceless to me.   

     Priceless to me, a person that knows their history.   

     Priceless to me, a person that knows their history, and recognizes that the value isn't the items themselves; the items' true worth is in their stories.

     When our mother passed away, we inherited a lifetime of her belongings. Scattered along the shelves of "I may need that again one day," and stuffed in cardboard boxes full of "There's still plenty of use for these," were rooms full of "Let me tell you the story behind this." Mother could always find a sentimental reason for keeping "stuff." It's a familiar scene for any household downsizing, moving to a retirement home, or clearing out an estate. What should we keep? What should we discard? What should we sell or donate? The key to deciding will be in an item's sentimental history. Without that history (in other words, the stories that give them meaning) all those treasured keepsakes are just "stuff," and sadly, one reason so many family artifacts end up at antique shops and flea markets.

     Fortunately for us, Mother understood the importance of telling the stories. We heard many over the years (like the one about the furniture with which she started homemaking.) Sometimes she'd scribble a brief history on a storage box (like the Nativity from Mrs. Gabbert shown here.) More often, she'd write an ancestor's name on a slip of paper and attach it to an heirloom so that we'd know who originally owned it. 

     Unfortunately for everyone, we didn't always pay as much attention as we should have to her stories and we failed to write them down. Sometimes we couldn't read her scribbled messages (as she aged her writing became less legible and her thoughts less clear.) More often than we'd like to admit, those slips of paper got separated from the heirlooms.

     So I suggest we take the hand-me-down traditions that our parents started and improve upon them for our children.

     To begin, create an inventory of the family heirlooms and artifacts that have been passed down to you. To the list, add items that have been a part of your own family's traditions (heirlooms for future generations.) Include documents, books, photographs, recipes, yearbooks, medals, toys, clothing, quilts, jewelry, dishes, artwork, furniture, hand-made items, tools, etc. And don't forget the stuff you may have stored off-site such as items on loan or items in self-storage units. 

     Take photos of each item, preferably several photos from different angles. Be sure to capture any "markings" such as artist signature, manufacturer label, jewelers mark, serial number, patent number, duty marks, etc.

     Write a physical description of each item on your list; this will help if the object, the photo, and/or the history become separated. Include the names of previous owners/locations, the date and why/how you acquired it, and the identify of the person or organization that you would like to become its next caretaker. And don't forget to indicate "which branch of the family" your heirloom belongs to by including the "surname" in your records.

     Here are two templates you may download to create an Album of your heirlooms and artifacts. The Inventory Index Log is a complete list of your heirlooms. When an item is added to the list, it is immediately assigned a unique "index number." That number is then entered on a separate Inventory Form which contains all the details about the item (photo, description, history, etc.) 


     Now begins the fun part -- uncovering the stories. Gather the family together (holidays are perfect for this) and get the conversation started. Sorting through the heirlooms as a group gives everyone the chance to relive fond experiences and to reminisce about the family members who once owned these items. The elders may provide the most details but don't forget the youngest storytellers in the group; their stories may be the truest and most revealing of all. 

     Here are some possible dialogue openers:

  • Why do you value this item?
  • What do you know about its history?
  • If the item is from previous generations, how did they acquire it?
  • How did the family elders use or enjoy this item?
  • Where did they have it in their home?
  • Do you have any old photos of someone using the item?

     Memories fade. Generations pass on. Over time, heirlooms gradually lose their meaning unless their histories are passed down as well. And if, down the road, family members choose to sell or give away the item, at least they'll keep the stories. Those stories are the true legacy.

     For some great examples of heirloom storytelling, check out these histories that were submitted to the News & Observer website. 


 Tips/Suggestions for completing the inventory form:

     Item name -- go ahead and refer to it by the name you usually call it, e.g. Mother's black diamond ring or Uncle Brad's pocket knife.

     Physical description -- be detailed. Describe color, dimensions, medium (wood, iron, ceramic, plastic,etc.,) condition (scratches, fading, pest damage, etc.,) and anything that may not appear in the photograph. If the heirloom is a "set" or "collection," include the number of pieces that belong to it. And if you want to get REALLY detailed, attach receipts, appraisals and insurance information, when applicable. (When additional writing space is needed, continue your description on the back of the form.) 

     Who made it & when -- enter the manufacturing company or the name of person that handcrafted the item. Include the place of origin. If you don't know the exact date an item was made, include notations such as "mid-19th century" or "circa 1920." 

     Who previously owned it & how did it come to me -- start with the present and list every place the heirloom has been (town, city, county and state) and when it was there. Just like our ancestors, the family heirlooms may have traveled many miles before settling down. Your list of owners will help the family historians place people in their homes and communities. Conclude the list with how and when you became the caretaker.

     Where is it now -- this may be "in the living room on the book shelf," but if it is in a storage facility or a safe deposit box, be sure to include the name and address of the location where the item is being kept. And be sure to update your Inventory each time you move the object to a different place.

     Where or to whom should it go -- enter the person's or the organization's name, address, and contact info here. If you do not have a specific person or organization in mind, you may leave this area blank or write "Not Determined."





     This is the second in a series of articles about preserving our family history. You may review Treasured Family Photos now, then be sure to stop by again next month when we discuss Treasured Family Records.