Pre-owned gifts don’t have to be tacky or last minute. Family heirlooms can make memorable holiday gifts when presented with thought and creativity, and might be the perfect gift for that hard-to-shop-for relative.
Think outside the traditional gift box when it comes to re-gifting a family treasure. The heir-apparent may need the back-story to understand the significance of your gift. Your gift will be even more appreciated if it comes with everything needed to preserve and enjoy it in the years to come. For a brief refresher on re-gifting etiquette, check out “3 Rules of ReGifting” in “The Family Curator’s Guide to Holiday Re-Gifting.”
When I asked Family Curator readers for thoughts on Most/Least Favorite Family Heirlooms, the verdict was clear – no china, no knick-knacks, no pianos. But people did want family photos, letters, and keepsakes they remembered and loved as children or that came with a family story:
21st Century Heirs Want to Inherit
1. Photos and Photo Albums
Heirs of all ages recognize themselves in old family photos. If you don’t have time to scan prints and film before gifting, enlist help. Gift the slide collection with a useful slide sorter and viewer, or a film-capable flatbed scanner for digitizing. I found an old Logan slide sorter in my aunt’s garage that helped me sort and select 35mm slides for digitizing.
Give the family photo album a new home in an acid-free archival box. Add a pair of white cotton gloves to protect the prints from fingers and body oils.
2. Yearbooks, Wedding Books, Scrapbooks
Most of us have memories of school days and special life events. As more publications go digital, fewer printed records are being published and our parents’ and grandparents’ old school yearbooks and wedding albums are becoming more rare. Millenials are discovering old yearbooks as special occasion coffee table books, brought out to savor and enjoy.
If you are ready to pass on a family album, give it a new home in a slipcase cover or acid-free archival box. Digitize the pages and create a reproduction book for each family member to enjoy using the step-by-step instructions in my book How to Archive Family Photos.
3. Journals, Diaries, and Letters
Handwritten pages bring our ancestors to life. Does your family include a writer, academic, or historian who might treasure the words of another family writer? Consider careers as well as hobbies when looking for a future heir.
No handwritten volumes? What about decorative marriage and baptismal certificates, land deeds, property maps. These documents can be attractively displayed when framed with archival materials and UV-filtering glass. Or, scan, reprint and frame a high-quality reproduction and present the original in an archival storage envelope.
4. Military or Career Memorabilia
Medals, service ribbons, uniforms and other pieces that speak to our ancestor’s military service are often welcome heirlooms.
Burial flags recognizing a veteran’s service can be folded into the traditional triangle and displayed in a glass front flag case. If you purchase a case with regular glass, display the flag in away from direct light or replace the glass with UV filtering glass or plexiglass.
Medals are often preserved in the original box, perfect for gift presentation.
5. Unique and Vintage Treasures
Comments from several readers show that sometimes inheriting one item is even better than owning the entire collection. One woman repurposed family silver as monogramed bracelets, another kept a single cup and saucer from a larger set of wedding china.
Many family heirlooms have become antiques or collectibles in their own right, from baseball cards and bobble-heads to vintage pocket watches. If you can afford it, pay to have the debut Super Bowl program and game ticket professionally framed with archival materials before you give it to your grandson. Present your grandfather’s Lincoln Penny book with a guidebook to coin collecting and an inexpensive magnifying loupe. Old hobby equipment might seem outdated, but vintage sewing machines, fishing tackle, and woodworking tools have become much-sought treasures to modern hobbyists.
Fashion trends have mostly buried interest in dining sets and buffets, but a mid-century stereo cabinet or lava lamp is likely to have several interested young heirs. (It’s probably wise to ask before gifting anything large or semi-permanent.)
Match the Heirloom to the Heir
Taste may change as we get older, but some interests just grow in fervor. Think carefully about the hobbies, career, and interests of the recipient of any gift. No matter how much I love my aunt’s old pottery cookie jar, it’s probably not a great gift for my grandsons. Instead, young boys might like granddad’s stamp collection or their dad’s baseball cards.
Write an Heirloom History
Pick up a pen and paper to handwrite a note explaining everything you know about the gift you’re giving. Include the name and basic information about the original owner and other owners. Explain how the keepsake came to you and any special memories or stories you recall. Include the original receipt, photos, or letters mentioning the item.
Find more ideas on how to write the history of your heirloom and how to preserve all kinds of family treasures in my book How to Archive Family Keepsakes.
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Nancy H. Vest says
It’s especially important to write heirloom stories. Otherwise heirlooms, like two old cow bells that I inherited, would just be junk.
Denise May Levenick says
You’re so right, Nancy. Now I want to know the story behind those cow bells. Must be a good one!