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The Complete Guide to Preserving and Passing on Your Historic, Precious Heirlooms

Tips for Downsizing, Preserving Delicate Materials, and Keeping Cherished Belongings in the Family

Seniors who choose to downsize or move to senior living communities are often faced with challenging decisions. Giving up the family home where you've raised your family and created so many lifelong memories is an emotionally wrought decision, let alone the arduous task of clearing out all the belongings you've accumulated through the decades you've spent creating all those memories.

Even younger adults in the process of moving or attempting to rid their homes of clutter are faced with similar choices. What precious belongings should you keep for future generations, and how can you go about preserving their quality so that your children and grandchildren can enjoy these items as much as you have?

We've put together this comprehensive guide to preserving and passing on your historic, precious heirlooms, packed with valuable resources on how to preserve delicate items and cherished memories, to help make this emotional and challenging process a bit easier. Whether you're downsizing, moving to a senior living community, or have decided to clean out some clutter and pass on some cherished items to children or grandchildren now, alleviating some of the burden and potential conflicts that may arise after you leave this world, this guide contains everything you need to know to communicate the value of your cherished possessions, properly preserve and store delicate items, and ensure that your heirlooms remain in the family for generations to come.

How to Convey the Value of Your Most Cherished Possessions

When passing down cherished personal items of significance to you and your family, you want future generations to value these items as much as you do. The following resources offer tips and information on conveying the value of your heirlooms, both today and for many decades to come by ensuring the original stories are passed along with the objects themselves to future generations.


Via flicker - Kandzorra

Write down the origin and history of each object, as well as what it means to your family. This article recommends keeping written records for your most valuable possessions. "All objects deteriorate over time, so start caring for them now. Make sure to identify, photograph, and maintain records of your treasures. Describe the history and condition of each object; note who made, purchased, or used it; and relate what it means to your family." This resource offers detailed instructions for cataloging photographs, documents, and family heirlooms.

Some of the most valuable belongings you can pass down are not physical objects, but stories, ideas, or things like favorite family recipes. This article offers a useful suggestion for preserving favorite family recipes from ancestors: "Food is much more than our body's fuel; it is an integral and sacred part of human culture that unites families and transcends generations. Many families strengthen their bond and maintain their identity by passing on recipes from generation to generation. For example, my own family collected all of my grandmother's recipes, transcribed them, and had several beautiful, hardbound books printed for her children and grandchildren to keep and remember her by. A recipe book can be one of the most profound ways to leave an emotional legacy because scent is the sense most closely linked to memory and emotion. The simple smell of cookies baked using Grandmother's special recipe can bring her to life in our mind's eye," explains Jeff Anderson. If you'd like to make your own heirloom family cookbook, this article outlines a step-by-step process for creating a plan, sourcing recipes, and creating a cookbook to preserve your family's heritage.

You shouldn't assume that children and grandchildren will naturally treasure the heirlooms that you have passed on - that is, unless you take steps to pass along the stories that accompany these items, as well. As this article points out, "The truth is that unless our children and grandchildren know the family stories that accompany these heirlooms, they are unlikely to treasure them as we do." The key to ensuring that future generations will cherish your heirlooms as much as you do is to prepare a brief narrative of the significance of each heirloom and distributing copies to family members. Additionally, you should keep a copy of the history and narrative surrounding an heirloom with the item itself, if feasible, and be sure to share stories and discuss the heirlooms that mean the most to you at family gatherings, such as holiday meals.

Tell the story about the historical significance of family heirlooms to your local newspaper or a website or blog dedicated to sharing such stories. This article is an example of one such compilation, in which readers share their stories about their most treasured family heirlooms and their significance.

Talk to local historians or have your heirlooms appraised. While the value of many of the world's most treasured family heirlooms isn't necessarily monetary, but sentimental, some heirlooms do in fact have substantial monetary value. Having your heirlooms appraised and documenting their value at the time can help to convey the value and encourage your heirs to hang on to these valuable items, particularly if they will increase in value as time goes on.

Preserving Delicate Items for Future Generations

Many heirlooms that seniors wish to pass down to their children and grandchildren are delicate and at risk of deterioration over time. The following articles and resources provide helpful information for properly preserving delicate materials, such as photographs, delicate fabrics, and other items to ensure that they remain intact for future generations to display and treasure.

Via flicker - Snodgrass

Wear gloves when handling delicate items, particularly older photographs. "Ever wonder why archivists wear white gloves? I use mine so often I wash them and store them in my underwear drawer. Human hands contain oils and salts that can damage photographs, and cotton gloves are an easy barrier to protect photographs. If you've seen as many 19th century photos as I have, you'd never forget that a fingerprint that's invisible today will eventually become an impossible-to-ignore brown stain in the future. White cotton gloves are a simple and inexpensive solution. You can buy them online from suppliers like Uline.com," recommends Sally Jacobs in this article at Unclutterer.com.

If you discover heirlooms that are broken, do not attempt to repair them yourself. As this article explains, attempting to fix items that look uncomplicated to fix can often do more harm than good. Instead of attempting to repair broken or damaged heirlooms yourself, contact an expert who can properly restore your valued possessions.

A natural disaster cannot ever be ruled out entirely. Mother Nature is, after all, unpredictable. That said, there are steps you can take - if you act quickly - to preserve and restore precious heirlooms following a natural disaster, such as a flood, fire, or tornado. This article shares several helpful resources that can help you regain or restore heirlooms following damage from a natural disaster.

Don't keep heirlooms on permanent display. This article explains that items such as quilts, which your descendants may wish to display, should only be displayed for three months at a time and then allowed to "rest" for a period of four months in proper storage.

Digitizing paper documents, photos, and other items is a useful way to create backups, ensure documents are preserved for future generations (even if the originals deteriorate to the point of being unreadable), and even creating a high-quality digital version that can be used to create a perfect print replica. This article discusses several methods for digitizing photos, documents, and records, depending on your goals for your digital archives.

Archiving is one of the best ways to preserve large collections of things like family photos, and it also means the ability to easily create multiple copies to share with several family members. However, archiving a large collection of family photos can be a daunting task. This article outlines five tips for tackling a large archiving task, including not being afraid to cut unimportant or repetitive photos, breaking big jobs into smaller tasks, and other advice.

Restoring paper documents, books, and photos is a task best left to the experts. Despite a variety of tools and techniques for paper restoration that are readily available, "The best advice to most do-it-yourself restorers is to do nothing. Home remedies often not only fail to fix the problem but introduce new problems that are even more difficult to fix. It is usually better to store a partially damaged document under good conditions than to try to fix it without professional help. Perhaps the most destructive "home remedy" professional conservators face are repairs done with self-adhesive tape," explains the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.

How to Store Collections, Antiques, and Other Items of Value

When downsizing or moving to a senior living community, heirlooms that seniors wish to pass on to future generations may require storage. This is often the case if passing on the items to the intended recipient isn't feasible at the present time. For instance, perhaps you have a cherished piece of jewelry that you'd like your granddaughter to have, but she is not yet old enough to properly care for it, or maybe you'd like to pass on the dining room table your great-grandfather hand-crafted, but the intended recipient doesn't have room in her current home to make use of it.

Other times, heirlooms that individuals simply want to keep but not necessarily put on display are placed in storage to preserve them for later use or future descendants. The following resources offer information on proper storage techniques for different family heirlooms to ensure that they can be enjoyed in the years to come.

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Paper documents tend to be the most fragile, but are also among the most common heirlooms. You should always wash your hands before handling delicate paper documents, and protect them from light, moisture, and heat. This article offers information on preserving delicate paper documents, including making copies and storing originals in archival folders or envelopes made of Mylar or acid - and lignin -free paper.

Store items in the proper environment and within an appropriate temperature range. "Conditions people find comfortable-approximately 68 degrees with 40 percent to 50 percent humidity-are ideal for heirlooms. Don't store them in basements, attics or near outside walls. To be absolutely sure about your storage conditions, invest in a light meter and a hygrometer, which measures humidity. Store photographs either in acid-free albums or layered between sheets of acid-free paper in acid-free boxes. When framing old photos, use acid-free mats and backboards to help prevent deterioration. Books stored on an open bookshelf need regular dusting. Be sure they are not squeezed tightly together, as this puts pressure on the spines."

Attics and basements, while common locations for storing family heirlooms that are not currently being used or displayed, is a bad choice. That's because the temperatures in these areas, along with moisture levels, tend to be inconsistent and outside of the desired range for preserving the integrity of delicate materials over time.

Store clothing in an acid-free preservation box with moth balls or cedar blocks. These steps help prevent pests from infesting your valuable items and slows down the normal aging process by offering some protection from the degrading effects of air, moisture, and light over time. As this article suggests, particularly sentimental or valuable clothing items, such as wedding gowns, should be taken to a dry cleaner, where they can be treated for proper preservation.

Inspect delicate textiles regularly for mildew, and store in cool, dry, and dark areas. In fact, lighting should be dim in areas where textiles are displayed, as well. As this article explains, "Low light levels are recommended for textile display areas and darkness for storage areas. Keep the shades drawn on windows in rooms where textiles are displayed and turn off any artificial lights when not in a room. Light damages fibers and causes fading. Sunlight and fluorescent light especially are damaging because they emit high levels of ultraviolet radiation. Damage caused by light is cumulative and irreversible."

Know the 10 agents of deterioration, and choose storage options that minimize exposure to these agents. This article outlines the 10 agents of deterioration, including physical force, water, neglect, and other concerns, in addition to key signs you can look for that indicate deterioration and damage to collectible items, such as stamp collections.

Ensuring Your Heirlooms Remain in the Family for Future Generations

We often have strong emotional ties to family heirlooms that have carried great significance in our own lives or that remind us of fond memories of loved ones who have passed on. When making the difficult decision to downsize or pass cherished items on to children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or other relatives, it's important to have confidence that these treasured belongings will remain in the family and continue to be passed down for generations to come. The following resources provide useful tips, advice, and strategies for ensuring that your treasured heirlooms will remain in the family as intended.

Via flicker - Garbutt

Pass heirlooms down to carefully chosen recipients. As this article points out, it's wise to make sure that your children and grandchildren are open to receiving the items you wish to pass on to them and that these gifts are considered just that - cherished gifts - rather than a burden. For instance, passing on a piano that's been in the family for many generations is a thoughtful gesture, but your granddaughter currently living in a studio apartment will likely have to scramble to find an appropriate place to store it.

Create a family history inventory. If your family understands the significance of the items you've chosen to pass along to them, they're more likely to take steps to ensure that these treasures remain in the family. A family history inventory is one way to achieve this, by creating a record of all the historical and valued items that have significance to the family. As this article suggests, you can even inventory missing family items.

Find ways to bridge the past, present, and future - which may mean creating new heirlooms that are easily passed on from one generation to the next. In addition to ideas such as creating a compilation of favorite family recipes into a family heirloom cookbook (discussed earlier in this guide), some families choose to create a quilt consisting of fabrics from a variety of valued items, such as a great-grandfather's letterman jacket, grandmother's wedding gown, christening gowns, treasured baby clothes, and similar items. As this article explains,

Sentimental upcycling can take the form of more than just cookbooks and quilts. As Etsy suggests, there are a variety of ways to pass on sentimental belongings that may not be useful in their original form, but can be made into something beautiful and significant that can be cherished by your children and grandchildren. Examples include having a christening gown made from an ancestor's wedding gown, having memory bowls created from receiving blankets, creating teddy bears for children from a grandparent's clothing who has passed on before the child was born, and other innovative upcycling ideas and services offered by talented crafters on Etsy and elsewhere.

Find a way to honor cherished memories while still paring down. As this article explains, making the choice to part with certain belongings that can be photographed and preserved in albums can help reduce the amount - and size - of items that you wish to pass on, such as the example provided of a family who agreed to part with family camping equipment that one family member set up in vignettes and photographed, with the photos later being preserved in a book. Sometimes, that means parting with items that have been valuable to you and carry significance, but passing them on to someone else who can turn them into something meaningful and beautiful, such as artists or crafters who can turn old love letters, vintage maps, and other documents into retro decor.

No matter your age or current living circumstances, you can take steps today to preserve your family's most precious heirlooms to ensure that they may be enjoyed and treasured by future generations. With a variety of storage options, preservation techniques, and even digital archiving solutions, it's possible to downsize without sacrificing your family's most treasured memories and mementos. We have locations all across the country.