The items we are going to discuss in this blog can cover the gamut of things we can inherit from our parents and grandparents. They can be small or large, cloth or ceramic, valuable in terms of money or just to you for the memory. It doesn’t matter. If it is important to you then you need to prioritize determining the best way to protect it in case of a natural disaster, safeguard it if it is also monetarily valuable, and ensure that when you are gone it doesn’t get thrown away or sent to Goodwill by whoever gets the job of sorting through the items you left behind. Since these items can be quite diverse, this blog will not be comprehensive. My job is to place a little trigger in your mind to sit down and do some research, develop a plan, and then work it until everything is as you think it should be. Will that mean the items are protected no matter what happens, no, you may still loose the item, but you will have greatly lessened the possibility of lost and documented the item for insurance purposes.
Let’s start with the easier item, the family Bible. If you have inherited the family Bible from one of your ancestors, count yourself very lucky. Chances are if it is very old, it is showing its age with the covers separating from the pages, pages yellowing and becoming fragile where people have touched and turned the pages and possibly even torn pages. If it has recorded information on the family you should do two things: 1) scan or photograph the pages using the same techniques discussed in the prior blog post on copying/scanning documents being sure not to do any further damage to the Bible, and 2) transcribe the information, print on acid-free paper and keep with the Bible. Once these two things are done, measure the Bible and purchase an archival box big enough for the Bible and the acid-free tissue paper. You don’t want this to be a tight fit or too big a box so that the Bible moves around. Here you are going to run into two terms that may be confusing: buffered and unbuffered materials.
In many cases, heirloom items will benefit from being wrapped in buffered tissue paper. Buffered means it contains an alkaline substance that can help counteract the acids that form in the material you are archiving. There are some important exceptions. 1) Protein-based materials such as wool, leather, feathers, pearls and silk, and 2) Dye-transfer prints and cyanotype photographs. These items should be stored in unbuffered tissue and boxes. Materials that are vegetable-based, such as cotton and hemp can be stored in either buffered or unbuffered.
Before wrapping the Bible in tissue paper take some good photos of front and back and keep with any photos you took of the recorded family information. Gently wrap the Bible in the appropriate tissue paper and then place a copy of any transcription of recorded information (printed on acid-free paper) on top of the tissue paper and place both in the archival box and put the lid on it. For anyone in the family who wants to see the Bible, you can share the the photos of the Bible and the recorded family information as well as the transcription, and if necessary explain why you are limiting removing the Bible from the box to ensure there is no further damage to the Bible from handling. If you have a safety-deposit box big enough for your boxed Bible consider placing it there. These vaults are much more secure and protected from disasters than our homes and they are often climate-controlled which is a better environment for fragile materials than our homes.
Glass and ceramic items are often overlooked, even if they are heirlooms. They get packed away or stuffed onto a shelf in the hutch and forgotten. It they are items that should continue in the family, there are some things you can do to ensure that happens and they are documented and safe. If the item came from a particular ancestor, get some labels that can be easily removed (test them on a mason jar or some other glass item that can be left with a partial label or stickiness) and write that on the label and attach to the bottom of the item. Take a photograph of the item and make some attempt to put a value on it. Look for manufacturing labels or other distinguishing marks in the effort to provide a value. You aren’t doing this to sale it but to put a value on it for insurance purposes if it is stolen or destroyed in a natural disaster. And this will make it easier for your estate administrator to get any items you have identified to be given to family or friends. If you are concerned about them being destroyed, you can pack them in a box with a good deal of padding, tape the box shut and place it in a plastic bag and store in the safest place in your house (interior room, away from water sources). Be sure to label before storing and make sure family and your estate manager knows where the box is located.
If you have a large number of items to protect, develop a plan of attack that breaks the project into workable chunks so you can work it around your life. If you know you are going to inherit items from a parent at some point, take the time to talk with them while they are still with you to find out about their significance to your family, or your parent, and possibly to you. When I did this with my mother, I found out that a white hobnail vase that had always just been in the houses we lived in and that I had given no notice to was the gift my Dad had given her on their first anniversary and that several small glass bowls and plates had belonged to my maternal grandmother’s mother.
Of course, the other side of this effort is finding yourself with a lot of inherited items that don’t have a lot of meaning for you and you don’t have the room to store. Check with other family members to see if they would like to have and identify and label on the bottom before you give it to them.
This brings me to a subject many of us don’t take the time to think about; leaving items to others after we are gone. After you’ve labelled and photographed all the family heirlooms you have, sit down and think about who in your family would be the best caregiver for each item. Make sure there are clear instructions in your will for those items. Family are not always going to act as we would prefer. A case in point. A friend of the family died a number of years ago and under her state’s laws, without a will everything went to her husband. He remarried and then died without a will. Everything that had belonged to the first wife that should have gone to their daughters wound up with the second wife who really had no emotional connection with any of it but still will not give the items to the daughters. Similar stories happen every day. If it is important to you, make sure your wishes are in a legal document.
If you don’t have family to leave items to or no one in the family wants the items you want to preserve, think about leaving them with a local museum or in some cases with the state archives or a local university that maintains records concerning local history. If you are concerned about all of that occurring as you wish, give the items away while you are still here. Letting go of things with sentimental value can be incredibly hard but sometimes it is the right thing to do to ensure their continued safety and care.
Until Next Time
- Downsizing with Family History in Mind by Devon Noel Lee & Andrew Lee
- Organizing and Preserving Your Heirloom Documents by Katherine Scott Sturdevant
- Archival supplies – Gaylord Archival
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