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Preserving Family Heirlooms
Column published: 24 January 2007
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

According to Webster an heirloom is "A piece of property that descends to the heir as an inseparable part of an inheritance or Something of special value handed on from one generation to another." People love to research the past but sometimes they do little to protect the pieces of family life they find for the future.

Some families have real heirlooms -- remarkable pieces of furniture, jewelry or silverware that have been handed down from generation to generation. If the current owner is very lucky they may even have the family stories that are associated with the heirlooms. When we can pass both the heirloom and stories on to our families it makes them even more valuable.

Most of us do not have families like those. Our possessions may not have much monetary value. Many of our families were the hard working farmers who helped turn our lands into nations. They were relatively poor so we many not have family heirlooms. Our family heirlooms might be a family Bible or photo album.

Sometimes I wonder what item or items might survive as representative of my life and who will be the keeper? If I were to do the selecting it would be very easy for me to decide what should be saved. I have three possessions that are very precious to me. I had asked my mother repeatedly to put together something about she and my father's life. Three years before she passed away she presented me with a scrapbook that detailed she and my father's 48 years of marriage. This was such a special gift. While celebrating one of my more "memorable" birthdays my husband and children gave me a wonderful booklet that they had all put together. In it they shared many memories about our lives as they were growing up.

The last item is an old Prince Albert Tobacco tin. When I was a child my father had his family pictures stored in one of the old tins. As a special treat he would let me get it out and look at the pictures. None of these items have great monetary value, but to me, they are absolutely priceless. You can't measure the worth or value of personal property.

In our area, the County Extension agents do a wonderful program entitled "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?" Almost everyone has personal belongings such as wedding photographs, a baseball glove, or a yellow pie plate that contains meaning for them and for other members of their family. This is a wonderful program and it helps people think about passing along their heirlooms long before it is a problem.

A friend of ours just recently served as an administrator for an estate. He said that they settled hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property with no difficulty. The only disagreement that they had was over the knickknacks that their mother had always had in the front window. Three of the four children wanted them. By giving this some careful thought we can avoid that happening in our families.

I would like to share with you a story about how the family heirlooms of one family were saved. Because of the act of a very brave woman generations of Americans have been able to view and admire the heirlooms of George and Martha Washington.
miniature portraits of George and Martha Washington
George and Martha Washington

Selina Norris Gray was the personal maid of Mrs. Robert E. Lee. Selina was a second-generation Arlington slave. She and Mrs. Lee enjoyed a very close relationship. In fact, she and her husband Thomas Gray were married by an Episcopal clergyman in the same room of the house when Mary Custis had married Robert E. Lee.

In 1861 the Lee family had to evacuate their home, Arlington. Mrs. Lee left the household keys and responsibility of the home to Selina Gray while she got her seven children to safety. Locked away inside Arlington House were many of the Washington treasures. These pieces were family heirlooms that had once belonged to Mrs. Lee's great-grandmother, Martha Custis Washington and President George Washington.

When Selina discovered that some of the treasures had been stolen, she confronted the soldiers and ordered them "not to take any of Mrs. Lee's things." She went to Gen. McDowell who was the commander and told him of the importance of the Washington heirlooms. He had the remaining pieces sent to the Patent Office for safekeeping. The Lee's never saw these items again but they were preserved for the nation. What an act of courage by a woman who had a lot to lose.

How will you share your family heritage, traditions, and memories? Give some thought to things that have been passed down to you and make sure that you are making arrangements for them to be passed to further generations. Remember also that you may have some items that are new to you and you have very special memories associated with them. Pass those along with the story behind them to your children. Make sure that you will be remembered as a good ancestor.

  • Protect and preserve the things you have discovered
  • Make sure your ancestors are remembered
  • Set realistic deadlines for yourself
Suggested readings:
  • The Everything Family Tree Book
    By William G. Hartley (Adams Media, 1998)
  • Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History & Genealogy
    By Jim & Terry Willard with Jane Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).
  • The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures.
    By Wilhelm, Henry, and Carol Brewer. Grinnell: Preservation Publishing Company, 1993.
  • An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs.
    By Tuttle, Craig A. Highland City, Florida: Rainbow Books, Inc., 1995.

  • Scroll down this page for in-print books on conservation...
Web Pages:
  • The Gray Family Site covers the history and restoration of Arlington House
  • Gray Family Exhibit: The family matriarch, an enslaved woman named Selina Gray, saved a group of artifiacts associated with George Washington
  • Heirlooms Lost This is a free site. They have over 1600 items and 4400 surnames in our database
Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

Check out the resources at

History & Genealogy Books...

Printed and digital history and genealogy books from a wide selection of publishers, including Global Heritage Press. Browse by country, location or topic.

Document & Artifact Preservation Products

Acid-free storage and display products to preserve and safely store your family heirloom documents and artifacts.

Family Tree Charts & Forms

Poster-size blank family tree charts and foldable large charts for storage in binders. Inc. 1992-2023
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