Family Stories Make Heirlooms More Valuable

Family Stories Make Heirlooms More Valuable

by Mary Beth Breckenridge
Akron Beacon Journal home writer
Published November 6, 2015

I have a fairly substantial collection of dishes, table linens and other whatnots passed down to me by family members over the years.

What I don’t have is a very good memory about where they all came from.

There are exceptions, of course, most notably a blue-and-white plate that was part of the set my aunt always used on her Thanksgiving table. It holds happy memories of our big, loud, loving family gatherings.

But the rest? I wish I knew.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the gifts. It’s just that I assumed I’d remember.

I didn’t.

Apparently that kind of mistake is common, which is why Gretchen Quinn presented a program not long ago to the Stow Historical Society that included tips for preparing your family heirlooms to be passed along to descendants.

Quinn serves on the board of trustees of the Brimfield Historical Society, where she did an internship while she was pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. She and Judi Allen, the society’s curator, developed the suggestions that Quinn included in her presentation and recently shared with me.

Her first recommendation: Write things down. Note anything of relevance — for example, what the object is, where it came from and how it came into your family.

Don’t think that just talking to the recipient about the item is enough, she said. Especially if that person is young, the item might not be as meaningful to him or her right now as it probably will be in the future. By then, you might not be around to repeat the story.

Quinn used her own experience as an example. At her bridal shower, her grandmother passed along a set of teacups she had received when she was married, along with an explanatory note. “That note is something I value almost as much as the actual glassware,” Quinn said.

Photos are commonly passed down through families, but they’re often unlabeled. Quinn recommended writing the names of the people on the backs of the photos — in pencil, which won’t harm the photograph the way ink can. It’s helpful to include anything else you know, such as birth, wedding or death dates, where the people lived or the place where the photo was taken.

That information may not be important to you, but members of future generations who are interested in genealogy will thank you, she said.

Whatever you’re passing along, be sure to preserve it properly so it lasts for generations to come, Quinn said. How best to store something depends on the item, and there are far too many possibilities to include here. But Quinn said libraries and historical societies often have books and other resources on how to protect specific items.

And don’t limit the things you pass down to, well, things. They can be stories or family traditions, she said. Just be sure to write them down, or perhaps making a voice recording or a video with your phone.

I think I’ll jot down a few memories to keep with my plate, so maybe someday my descendants will know that we ate Thanksgiving dinners in the basement and, in later years, the garage; that we sat on antique chairs my uncle had refinished at a table with a plywood top big enough to seat a couple of dozen people; and that one year my brother accidentally squirted whipped cream across the table, right at my cousin’s girlfriend.

That’s stuff worth remembering.