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May 19, 2013

Documenting and Passing on Family Treasures

Documenting and Passing on Family Treasures
Grandpa Fuller's engraved Gold Pocket Watch from 1914
Given by his parents on his 21st birthday
before leaving England to settle in Canada
My grandmother Ruth gave me many family treasures when I was a teenager. They mean the world to me and I spend a lot of time mulling over how best to get the next generation interested in them.

My hope is that one or more of my children or grandchildren will keep them safe and continue passing them down to the next generation. I've considered giving each family member one treasure to keep safe.

I've also mulled over passing all of the items on to one person for safekeeping. Dilemma #1 - who will get what treasure? And #2 - should I give them now or write out a note explaining who gets what after I'm gone?

The Provenance

And how do you pass on the knowledge that goes with each treasure? How do you make sure that the provenance - the information as to who the item belonged to, who gave it to you and when, is not lost?  The more details that go with the item, the more chance it will be treasured and preserved. If, for example, I give one of my sons my great-grandmother's toast rack, the chances are that at some point in the near future it will end up in a garage sale!

I can see a wife looking at it and asking why they are keeping it. Without some paper record, I suspect my sons would shrug a shoulder and say "Geez I dunno, Mom said it was one of her relatives but I don't remember who" Bingo - a label of 25 cents is put on it and it goes out to the front yard.

So I added another dilemma to the mix - #3 how to document the provenance of each family heirloom so that it stays with the specific item

The Dilemmas

That makes 3 dilemmas I need to solve:
  1. Who will get what treasure? Do I split them up or give them all to one person?
  2. Should I give them now or write out a note explaining who gets what after I'm gone?
  3. How do I document the provenance of each family heirloom so that it remains with the item
My Solutions

Here are some of my solutions. Nothing strikes me as the perfect answer but so far these are the best methods I've come up with

1. I've attached labels to many items. The labels indicate who is to have the item after my demise and there is a brief bio of who owned it. There is no info as to when and how I ended up with said item due to space limitations. Some items such as my Grandpa Fuller's gold pocket watch don't lend themselves to having a label affixed!

2. I've inventoried all my family treasures. I took photos then inserted them into WORD and then typed up an explanation of the item, the original owner (with some family tree info), who gave it to me and when. Beside each item I've put the name of who I want to have it (if I've decided!) I printed all the pages off and bound them as a coil bound booklet for my executors. My hope is that as an item is given, the page(s) that apply to it will be torn out and passed on with the item

3. I've tried some online methods including a nice little iPhone app called Heirlooms. But they aren't exactly what I am looking for

4. I've written blog posts about some of my family heirlooms and I am thinking about creating a Shutterfly book with each of these blog posts, then giving one copy to each of my children. So far this is the idea I'm liking the best! Here are a few of the heirlooms I've written about:
A 1913 Fireplace Screen's Long Journey

Great-Grandpa's Trunk

3 Generations of Baby Cups

Cabinet of Curiosities: A Christmas Toast!

Perhaps inside each book I could indicate which heirlooms each of my children or grandchildren is to receive at some point in the future. 

So far this seems like the best method as I believe a hard cover book will survive through the generations much better than pieces of paper or labels attached to the back or underside of objects.

 And of course, as always, I will continue to tell my children and grandchildren the stories behind each object every time we get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I figure repetition of family stories shouldn't be overlooked!    

So what are your plans for documenting and passing on your family heirlooms?


Christy said...

This is a FANTASTIC post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and such specific examples. As my parents have aged this is a dilemma I have also worried about. I'm afraid I will keep putting off making a decision and one day realize it's too late and I've lost the sources of all the relevant information.
My top current idea is to make 5x7 index cards for each item, attach a small (3x3ish) photo(s) and ask a parent or relative to hand-write the basic info about the item. I can later write in additional information or explain relationships, item location, etc on the back as needed. I can punch a hole in the cards and use a binder ring to keep them together, or take them to an office supply store and have them spiral bound. They would also be easy to scan (to share digital copies or to print in form of a book) or copy to share with other family members.
The main thing is to pick a method and DO it- I tend to get hung up on finding the "best" way and never actually get anything done.
Thank you for the post- I'd love to see some examples as you work on your project!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Christy - love your idea of the index cards!

And you are spot on with your advice to JUST DO IT!

My problem is that I make a decision, I start the project and then partway through I decide it isn't exactly what I want. So I switch to a different method and start over. ARRGHH!!

Anna Marie said...

I too have struggled with documenting items that have been passed to me. I have several linen doilies and afghans as well as jewelry pieces. Many of these are items I still use within my home, or (in the case of the jewelry) still boxing them away with a label is not always the most practical.

One of the projects on my list is to photo document the items.

I have also tried (to much avail) to interest other family members in allowing photo documentation of items that have been passed to them, and the story of the item recorded. My interest is entirely in preserving the heritage and story behind the items, but other family members feel it will create angst.

My grandmother was very good at laying out who should receive which items in her will. She was an avid art collector and wanted to share her collection equally with her family. Every time any of us visited her, she would have us walk through the house and state which pieces we liked. She would write it down and have it updated in her will. If more than one person requested an individual piece, she was able to make the decision who would get it (she did this especially if someone had their name on several items while the other person had only one or two). For artwork and items that were family heirlooms, she included a description, the story behind the piece (where it had come from), and to whom it should go...all documented within her will. This is something I also plan on doing. Just don't put off creating a will, thinking you have plenty of time to do it.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Anna Marie - love what your grandmother did but when I try that with my family, their eyes glaze over! My brother actually stopped me and said "You know I don't really care, right?"

Also my labelled items are not boxed away. I have them in my home on display or in use. For eg. my great grandma's toast rack is in my China Cabinet with a label on the underside.

Some items can't be labelled but I do like labels on those where it works.

Photo documentation is a great idea IMO

Midge Frazel said...

Mine will be going to eBay I am sure.

Mariann Regan said...

Yes, excellent. I have been worried about exactly this issue for months. I have my grandfather's gold pocket watch (!!), and I want to pass it on to my nephew, whose middle name is my grandfather's last name. I have not confronted this issue yet. But you have helped me.

I really like the idea of a small, bound book with enough information to intrigue my nephew and also be a complete explanation in itself. Then if he wants to search out our archives in the state library where they will be, or examine our family tree on Ancestry (if that still exists), he can find out as much more as he wants.

I think you have solved my problem! And no doubt the problems of many others!

The Dead Relative Collector said...

This is something that I think plagues many of us... I've worried that if I were to die today, many of my treasures would be discarded because few people know the origins of them.

In the case of "family heirlooms"... I think items relating to family history should go to people who actually have some knowledge of the family and of the person that item originally belonged to!

Many people (my Mother being one!) care nothing about the history or sentiment behind an object... they only like it for its aesthetic value. I think that someone should know about "Grandpa" and care about his life, to be left his watch. Afterall... if the item has no sentiment to that person, who says they will keep & respect and ensure it is kept part of the family!

On a side note, I have used the 'Heirlooms' app and photographed things at my Grandmother's home... someday, I may get to my stuff...

Great subject to get people talking & thinking about their "stuff"!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Midge that is sad! I know you have a beautiful writing desk that belonged to an ancestor, I hope that will be saved and cherished by your daughter

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Mariann, I hope my blog post gets genealogists thinking and coming to decisions about their family heirlooms and not just their research into ancestors

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Great point Nicholas about passing an heirloom on to someone who cares and knows about the ancestor who once owned it.

But what do we do if there is no one at the present time? Maybe a grandchild will grow up to care... but it can be a tough choice

Patty said...

This conversation makes me think of a famous family story. When my great grandfather died, it is said the family gathered at the house, drank his wine, then dug a ditch around the porch. They then dumped all the silverware and dishes, etc. into it. The lesson is "it could be you" so do what you can to promote the love of family treasure, Take it out, tell the stories and catalogue it in some way (like the photo book idea too)
Then it's up to the next generation...

Family Curator said...

Lorine, You bring up a hot topic for many of us -- who will want our stuff when we're gone? I think donating is a good option in some situations, but it takes some work to make your items attractive to an institution. They don't want a lot of clutter, either. I think you've moved forward with your inventory and heirloom histories.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Family Curator - thanks! I agree - many insitutions (esp. museums) have basements full of "stuff" that never sees the light of day.

I don't want my family treasures ending up there :-(

But if they do, at least they wont' be totally lost/invisible if I create Family Treasure books with photos and the stories that go with them.

Helen V Smith said...

I like the book idea but I would also suggest doing a video story where you tell the story of each heirloom. This serves a number of purposes as your descendents will be able to hear you and see you after you are gone. For each heirloom you are then able to show the object, any photos of the previous owners etc all as part of a story and this personalises the objects and you can also tell any stories that may go with person and the heirloom ie great Grandpa's wood-plane that you inherited and this was great grandpa and great grandma wedding day. I remember him and the smell of the wood shavings when he worked and his pipe. He used to keep his tobacco moist by adding a few drops of rum to the jar. etc

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Helen, A video would indeed be wonderful to have. But .... technology changes and eventually that video would no longer be viewable. Not only would it degrade over time but there would be no device that could play them.

My 1980s VHS tapes were just barely recoverable, and some not at all, when I converted them two years ago

The most long-lasting method is book form. So yes I would preserve the treasures in different ways and definitely the video is a lovely idea. Just don't expect your great-great-great grandchildren to be able to see it.