You’ve been tapped to clean out your parents’ home. Maybe it’s the house you grew up in. Or the latest retirement home. Or maybe it’s all the boxes filled with stuff you brought to your house after they moved. If you’re lucky, you can still park your car in the garage and get to the washing machine.
But, now it’s time to unpack those boxes and see what’s inside.
In this post, we aren’t going to get to the nitty-gritty of actually archiving items of genealogical or historical value. Nope. It’s summer. We are going to talk about Trash vs. Treasure. And I’m going to suggest a few ways to enjoy the coolness factor of old road maps and souvenir thimbles without letting them take over your life.
A Walk Down Memory Lane with Cyndi Ingle
Genealogy expert Cyndi Ingle, creator of Cyndi’s List, knows about family keepsakes. Cyndi’s mom is enjoying life in her new retirement home and Cyndi is clearing the contents of her childhood home. She says,
There is a lot to go through here. It’s fascinating and there are so many feelings I’m having as I do this. As a genealogist I’m thrilled with every little discovery – letters, cards, old docs and bills, evidence of funerals and graduations, etc. As a daughter I’m amazed at things my parents did for me that I knew about, but didn’t fully appreciate at the time.
Cyndi points out the emotional side of house-clearing — reading an old letter and remembering the way your parent defended you against a teacher or coach, finding a game you loved and played with for hours, seeing the childish Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts carefully saved or displayed.
All the memories mixed up with the “stuff” are stories waiting to be written down. Cyndi’s solution to saving keepsakes is to save pictures and stories instead. She is taking photos and sharing them with friends and family on social media. One day, she might turn the pictures into a scrapbook.
Another option would be to let the Facebook posts do all the work. Some online photo service companies now import photos directly from Facebook. Of course, if you have the original high-resolution you will have better quality images. Copy the text from your social media posts and paste it in a word processor to use as a kind of keepsake photo journal. Publish with an online photo book service like Shutterfly or Mixbook, or create a Word document with photos that you can print and save or share. See the project section in How the Archive Family Photos for step-by-step instructions to making online photo books.
From Trash to Cash
Most family homes hold their share of paper. Some people routinely discard junk mail, receipts and old magazines. Other people save those things, along with plastic twist-ties from bread bags and plastic take-out tubs. What you chose to save, and what you toss will ultimately be your personal decision.
If you are like me, you routinely buy household supplies like plastic wrap, foil, laundry detergent, and cleaners. Why buy new packages when you can bring home your aunt’s stockpile of zip-loc bags and dish soap? I recently finished Mom’s last roll of wax paper, and she passed away in 2010. Reusing household supplies when you clear out an estate saves that much cash for DNA tests or genealogy certificates.
If the minimalist gene doesn’t run in your family, you might find old roadmaps, travel brochures or appliance booklets. Before tossing the manual to a refrigerator that died twenty years ago, search auction sites for recent sales. On eBay, use the Advanced or Filter Option to search Completed and Sold Listings. Try searching for the item by name. It’s surprising what some of the older model booklets fetch on the auction market, especially instruction manuals for sewing machines, automobiles, cameras, and professional tools.
The market for paper ephemera varies widely. Items offered at online auction websites as a “lot” that are displayed in sharp, well-exposed photos seem to attract higher bids.
Local antique shops or vintage paper shows are another good way to pass on vintage items you no longer want. Just ask the dealer if he is buying and show photos or make an appointment. Remember, the dealer is the middleman, so you won’t get top retail prices. Expect to make about half or less of what you might pay if you were buying. But you will get it out of your garage.
Not Quite a Million Dollar Decorating Trend
Fans of HGTV who follow their favorite decorating magicians on Instagram and Snapchat probably have plenty of ideas for up-cycling some of the treasures from their parents’ homes.
Only a few months ago, any kind of wooden, stained, “brown furniture” was at the top of the list for Heirlooms No One Wants to Inherit. But thanks to the popularity of DIY farmhouse style decorating, your parents’ old china hutch could be your next showcase bookshelf. My sister is busy repainting our aunt’s old maple Ethen Allen nightstands for her Oregon ranch home. I can’t wait to see the results.
New paint products, online tutorials and courses have sprung up to meet the demand of homeowners who want to mix old and new. If farmhouse isn’t your style, it’s still nice to know that your old wooden furniture is good for something besides the campfire.
Trash or Treasure?
You’ve heard the old saw, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Anyone who has cleared out a family home understands the difficulties of the task. But, you can save the story, or enjoy the chair in a new version.
Your family heirlooms don’t have to end up in the dumpster. Unless, that’s exactly where you want them to go.
Photo credit: Yep, that cool fried egg clock pictured in the heater image decorated my childhood kitchen. And it still works!
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Giulia Latini says
I have been saddled with going through and deciding the fate of literally 10’s of THOUSANDS of family letters and documents dating from Pre-Revolution tough the 1950’s, but mainly from between 1870’s and 1945. Pre-stamp envelopes, containing letters, thousands of stamped envelopes, both from the USA as well as from many countries around the world, including China, South American countries and European (mostly from Italy where my American grandmother resided from 1935 to 1942). From ship board, trains, world-class hotels, etc. What should I do with all of these? Sell the bulk on eBay? How much? We can keep one box, those with my grandmother’s calligraphy, but the others must go. Stamp collectors? Ancestry buffs? Historical societies? I don’t know where to start. Help! Thanking you in advance for your advice, I remain Yours Truly, Giulia. P. S. This grey font is very hard on the eyes BTW.
Denise May Levenick says
Lucky you to have such a wealth of family papers, although I sympathize about the need to downsize. Those letters surely tell the story of your grandmother’s and family’s lives and if they are worldwide, she must have had many friends. If you don’t wish to use them as a source of biography or genealogy, I suggest you contact a university archive or historical society from your family hometown, or her college. Explain what you have to see if the material fits with their collection. Many archives are looking for items from everyday people because they tell the story of the rest of us, not the celebrities or famous folks. Depending where your family lived, worked, or traveled, you should be able to find a very happy new home for the collection. Best of luck. (tx for the font note; I am working on a change).
Genie Teachers Helper says
As you go through, make a box of pencils, working pens, paper & cards, office supplies, etc. or other items you think a school might use. Before giving them to a thrift store ask at the local school if the teachers can use them. Do you know the average teacher spends over $500 of their own money on school supplies for their classroom?
Denise May Levenick says
Good idea! Students can always use new pencils, rulers, and fresh pens.