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How to Preserve Family Heirlooms So They Last Forever

Everything is treated differently—from your mother's wedding dress to your great-aunt's jewelry.

hanging wall decorations heirlooms in shadow boxes
Photography by: Johnny Fogg

If you're thinking about saving family heirlooms but don't know where to start, the answer is much simpler than you might think. "Where do people start? I think that depending on what kinds of items you have, that's where you start," says Denise May Levenick, a genealogist, family historian, and the author of "How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records" and "How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally." "They might have a photograph or an album or maybe they might have inherited an object like a pocket watch or a small bible, and they want to know how to take care of that one item, and then it kind of grows often into more."

 

Photographs and scrapbook albums rank easily among the top items that most people seek to include in their family heirloom collection, and Levenick, who's known as "The Family Curator," offers some great tips for making sure these memories last for lifetimes. "If you inherited a photo album like your parents' wedding album and you want to preserve it, and you're worried that it's going to get brown, well, you're right, because there's a lot of acid in the air and environmental pollutants," warns Levenick. "These can easily tarnish and diminish the look and longevity of your photos if you don't take steps to protect them."

 

Acid-free boxes and acid-free paper are the prime choice for preserving items, available at archival suppliers and art supply stores. Otherwise Levenick suggests wrapping your photos in a 100-percent cotton pillowcase, which she says works pretty well. "You don't want to do anything that's irreversible," she explains. "You don't want to put scotch tape on a torn picture. You can use a regular sheet protector. They do have archival ones that are crystal-clear. You can buy archival quality protectors, but just the regular ones aren't too bad."

 

Other popular heirloom items are clothing, textiles, and jewelry, which also can tell the story of your lineage if you know how to archive them properly. Levenick stresses the importance of documenting on paper the story that goes with your family heirlooms. "The story is important," she says. "Without the story, it's just stuff—you don't know what it is. If you know the reason why the family even has the item, it helps, particularly with jewelry." In memory keeping projects, it's important to use the best materials that you can to preserve the integrity and composition of your cherished item. She offers the following tips on how best to archive the most commonly cherished keepsakes.

 

RELATED: Family Heirloom Display Boxes

 

Photos and Albums

Do use sheet protectors. If you choose to scan or take pictures of your photos, be sure to back up your photo files. Consider using a photo-scanning app to get the job done. Avoid using products with substances that can transfer onto the photos like tape. Newspapers are toxic and its pages are saturated with acid, so make sure do not bring them into contact with other treasured items. Photo-copying news clippings onto acid-free paper is a better option. Acid-free boxes can also be used to store books, family bibles, and paper documents can be place in acid-free sleeves.

 

Clothing and Textiles

This might be your mother's wedding dress, your great-grandmother's heirloom quilt, or your daughter's baby clothes. Moths can detect body oils or flakes off your skin, so it's important to thoroughly clean any kind of clothing. Dry cleaners will clean items like a wedding dress and place it in a special archival bag (made out of TYVEK material) upon request. Clothing items can also be stored in an acid-free box (available for order from archival supply store). Make sure your dry cleaner is equipped to handle vintage or antique clothing items—older items may require specialty cleaning. Smaller items can be stored in tieback bags after they are cleaned. 

 

Jewelry

Most jewelry items (necklaces, rings, watches, and earrings) can be stored in a soft cloth bag and then placed in a jewelry box—if you have the original one it came it you can use that. Be sure to examine and if necessary repair your jewelry items should it need to be restrung or a new clap (keep in mind that repairs of this nature can alter the value of your jewelry item). For items like rings, cuff links, and tie pins, write down the whole story of that item and fold it up and put it in a box with the item. If you have a family watch that you wish to heirloom, be sure to have it serviced regularly to keep it in operating order.

 

Think you are ready to properly preserve your family heirlooms for future generations? Levenick offers this final takeaway: It may be a good idea to designate one family member as the "keeper" of the heirlooms. "There's a little thing that genealogists say, 'If you have one copy of something, that's not a backup,'" she adds. "You need to have three copies, and two of those need to be on different media—one on maybe your computer, one on an external hard drive, and one on the Cloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive." Additionally, Levenick advises keeping one copy of your photos at home, and one copy offsite in case of a burglary, fire, or flood to ensure that if a catastrophe or incident occurs, all is not lost. 

 

If you're looking for assistance with your heirlooms, Levenick says the Association of Professional Genealogists and Association of Personal Photo Organizers are both good resources.