Should I keep this? Anyone who has cleaned out a family home or helped settle an estate has probably heard this question more than once.
It can be hard for family historians to let go of anything that might carry a family story, no matter how old or broken that keepsake might be. One keepsake isn’t much to save, but it doesn’t take long for family treasures to become a mountain of memorabilia that threatens to come down on our present life like an avalanche.
Should I keep the silverplate coffee service that no one likes and will use?
Should I keep grandpa’s Army uniform?
Should I keep these old address books? Christmas cards? Bank books?
So, how do we choose, what to save, what to toss, and what to give away? I’ve sifted, sorted, and organized dozens of family collections, and discovered that it sometimes “less” is truly “more,” even when it comes to family archives. Yes, we could probably find a family story in every single item set aside and saved, but is that the story we want to preserve? Or, knowing the story, can we let the item go?
Our ancestors were mobile people, and as anyone knows who has ever moved from home to home, each relocation typically involves a kind of triage. Some things are tossed away, others carefully packed up and moved to the new home. Rarely is a home moved intact from place to place.
The same kinds of decisions occur between generations. Sometimes, a son or daughter will inherit an entire home of possessions and need to begin the difficult task of sifting, sorting, saving, and tossing.
Family historians will want to be on the lookout for anything that documents vital record information (birth, marriage, death records), hints at unknown family members, or fills in the blanks for “mystery years” or “family secrets.”
So, what should what should we keep, and what can we toss or give away?
An unhelpful answer, I know, but it does. . . depend.
It depends on how many family collections you have already and how many more you are likely to bring home in the future. – If you have a good storage archival storage space and the time and interest to organize and preserve the items, feel free to save whatever you like.
It depends on the size of the collection.
A box filled with family artifacts vs. an entire family home with everything, including the kitchen sink. You might decide to save everything in the box, and be selective when it comes to the house.
It depends on your relationship with the owner.
This is not to say that treasures belonging to a favorite aunt are of less value than those belonging to a parent or grandparent. But if you have six aunts and uncles and inherited everything from all of them, you might be wise to be selective about what you preserve in order to allow space, time, and resources for your direct ancestors’ collections,
It depends on why it was saved.
Did your ancestor save that old hairbrush to brush the dog, or was it a treasured item brought from the Old Country? Not every artifact has value as a family heirloom. It might be interesting, old, or unique, but is it worthy of your preservation efforts?
It depends on how old it is.
That old hairbrush might not look like much, but if it’s one hundred years old, I’d probably save it. I might show it to an antique expert to learn more about it. I wouldn’t want to see it in a photo one day and realize I had thrown out great-grandmother’s vanity brush.
It depends on what it’s worth, monetarily.
All things being equal, sterling silver trumps silverplate when it comes to competing for precious storage space.
It depends on what it’s worth, to me.
However, if I had to choose between them, I would save my ancestor’s pottery baby cup over a silver one. Sentiment and connection trump a dollar any day.
When deciding what to save and what to toss, ask yourself –
- Do I have the resources to care for this?
- Is this the only keepsake from my ancestor?
- What is my relationship to the owner?
- Was this item saved as a family heirloom?
- How old is it?
- Is it valuable?
- Is it priceless to me or to our family?
Three “Yes” answers should be a clue that the item is worth preserving, or at least holding for further consideration.
I’ve found 19th century baby photos tucked between pizza take-out menus and trade union cards stashed in old wallets. You have to look inside everything, but then it’s ok to toss the cracked plastic envelope, the take-out menus and the smashed, blackened prom corsage.
Take a digital photo if you need a visual reminder of the artifact. Write a short note if it holds a special story. If in doubt whether or not you should let something go, ask yourself if you’ve ever saved a similar memento from your own life experience, and what you expect your children to do with it. Sometimes, it’s ok to give yourself permission to hold on to the memory and let go of the clutter.
Find more ideas for sorting and organizing inherited family treasures in How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records by Denise May Levenick (Family Tree Books, 2012).