Preserving Heirlooms

Above: Eli Thomas Skipworth (1847-1912, the author’s 3rd great grandfather) and Thelmer Carver (1920-1944, the author’s cousin)

If you’re like me–the family caretaker of historic heirlooms–you’ve been given a monumental (though rewarding) task. While you may be ecstatic at the prospect of owning family heirlooms, as I certainly was, it can be daunting when the realization dawns that you have a one-of-a-kind familial treasure. Here, I’ll give you some helpful tips for ensuring that your family heirlooms are well preserved–for many more years to come!

  1. Keep Them SafeI’ve heard so many stories throughout the years of family photos and documents being destroyed. Oftentimes, this occurs due to a fire. One easy way to help protect photos is by placing them in a fire proof safe. While fire proof safes aren’t necessarily fire “proof” (most are just fire retardant) it’s certainly better than keeping them out of a safe. Be sure, however, that the safe you purchase is both fire and water proof!
  2. Scan Them – Another way to help preserve historic photos/documents is by scanning them and uploading them to your computer. (For added protection, scan them to a thumb drive stored in a safe.) Not only does having historic pictures and documents on your computer make them easier to share with others, but having a copy also means the photo/document will still exist if something should happen to the original piece.
  3. Keep Them Out of the Spotlight (literally!) – A key to keeping paper items–photos, documents, newspapers, etc.–in good condition is by keeping them out of direct sunlight. While it can be tempting to proudly display an original historic paper piece in a frame, it’s better to keep such items stored in a dark, acid free space. You might opt to hang up a copy of your ancestor’s photo/documents while storing the original in a fire proof safe, archival sleeve in a box, etc.
  4. Temperature – Besides keeping paper items out of direct sunlight, you also want to make sure they’re in an area that isn’t too hot nor too cold. As such, the best place to keep paper items is in your home (though if your attic/basement isn’t an average temperature, that might not be a viable storage option). Ensuring that paper memorabilia stays at an average temperature can help preserve the items. Find out more about how to properly store paper items via National Archives.
  5. Hold the Edges – A lot of archivists hold both paper items and historic coins using gloves. However, by holding the edges of historic documents, you can ensure that you don’t wear away any of the historic writing. Further, you should hold antique coins by the edges, too. Oils in one’s hands can wear away the face and date on a coin. Buffalo Nickels are evidence of this, as, due to the position of the coin’s date, the year has been worn away over time. To make sure this doesn’t happen to your collectible coins, hold them by the edges only!
  6. Stored Away Safely – For breakable heirlooms, be sure that the items are stored safely away. To keep them safe from small children or pets, you may consider storing breakable heirlooms on a high shelf. Or, even better, place them somewhere behind glass. That way items will stay safe even if you (guilty!) or someone you know is a klutz!

I hope the tips above for preserving heirlooms will aid you in keeping your precious family pieces safe and well-maintained! Even though it may feel like a daunting task, being the “Official Heirloom Guard” (it’s a working title!) is a great privilege. Be sure to embrace every moment of taking care of heirlooms, as you have the honor of preserving them for future generations.

Remember to preserve the past, in the present, for the future!