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What to do With Your Best Family Heirlooms


When a parent or grandparent moves into a smaller home or passes on, one of two things happens to all the stuff in the house. Many items are tossed out or donated, but a few items have enough monetary or sentimental value to get passed down to the next generation. These become the family heirlooms.

There are very few homes that don’t have at least one item handed down from past generation. Many people like it this way. In fact, studies show 64 percent of baby boomers say heirlooms are the most important part of an inheritance, far more important than money. This means people are more likely to not only accept a keepsake from a departed relative, but also preserve it so they can pass it on to their children and grandchildren, keeping at least one family tradition alive.

Good family heirlooms can come from a wide variety of sources, from some faraway jeweler to a local furniture craftsman. Whatever your parents or grandparents have handed down to you, it’s important to know how to take good care of them. If you’re successful, these heirlooms can even find a place in your home.

What are Good Family Heirlooms?

Examples of good family heirlooms are often items that have stayed within the same family for decades. However, certain items are more likely to be passed down than others. If you are looking for family heirloom ideas, examples of famous family heirlooms include:


Grandfather clocks are aptly named, since so many have been passed down from grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Not all clocks fit in a room, though – some clocks fit on your wrist or in your pocket. In fact, these kinds of heirlooms are becoming even more precious as clocks and watches are replaced by digital clocks.


Despite the move to video games and social media, old-fashioned toys can still hold a place in children’s hearts. A handcrafted rocking horse can delight a young boy in one era and his grandchildren in another, while dolls and board games are a great for passing on not only a treasured object, but a favorite family pastime.

Letters and Diaries:

Unlike some items that may have been mass-produced, letters and diaries are truly one-of-a-kind heirlooms. These can include anything from wartime correspondence from soldiers to their sweethearts, to personal perspectives on the news of the day.


An engagement ring or cameo necklace doesn’t have to cost a lot to be priceless. It simply has to have come from someone in your family who received it from another family member. Other heirlooms in this category include cufflinks, hairpins, broaches and hatpins.


no matter what your style, a well-crafted table or chair will always find a place in your home. Some furniture will get as much use as it did when it first arrived in its original home – some will sit in a corner as a reminder of the past. Some pieces, like cedar chests, will hold other top family heirlooms.


Of course, not everything that gets passed down will survive as heirlooms. For example, your father might consider an old wooden chair to be heirloom-quality furniture, but over time it becomes so decrepit that it’s not worth saving at all. Those things that can be saved usually are, though, and are given to the person who values it most. What if more than one person sees its value? Then it’s time to follow the etiquette of giving away family heirlooms.

Who Gets Family Heirlooms?

If only one person wants the treasured heirlooms you plan to pass to the next generation, your decision is simple. Deciding who gets family heirlooms isn’t always so easy, though. While family heirlooms are a great way to build a bridge between the present and the past, they may end up tearing a family apart if you don’t put a hierarchy in place.


What are the rules for giving away family heirlooms? Who should be trusted with antique jewelry or your great-grandmother’s favorite table? The right answer depends on the family and the item in question, but there are a few basic rules for top family heirlooms that give priority to one person over another. For example:

Family Comes First:

the closer the relation, the higher the priority. Blood relatives get preference over non-blood relatives every time, so a 19th-century pocket watch would go to the owner’s granddaughter and not the son-in-law. Similarly, immediate family has a better claim than a distant relative, so children and grandchildren are more likely to take in coffee tables than the children of a second or even a first cousin.

Direct Connection:

If two potential heirs want the same item, the winner is the one with a greater connection to it. The grandchild who regularly spent time in a summer home has more right to the four-poster bed and other furniture than the grandchild who visited occasionally. On the other hand, the second grandchild may be entitled to the photo albums that contain some of the photos he or she took as a child.

Ability to Maintain:

Getting a family heirloom is one thing – preserving its integrity is another. Two siblings might really want their parent’s handmade armoire, but one has small children and a hectic schedule while the other has a quiet home life and time to properly clean it. This makes the choice clearer.

Some heirlooms don’t get passed down because nobody wants them. If this happens, they don’t have to go into storage or the landfill. Instead, donate them to a second-hand store or sell them and give the proceeds to charity.

How Do I Preserve Top Family Heirlooms?

One reason a piece of jewelry or a furniture set survives is because it’s kept in good condition generation after generation. This doesn’t happen by accident. Someone in the family must care enough about the item to ensure it maintains its appearance, quality and functionality, whether the person is the original owner or the fifth.

If you want to keep precious heirlooms in the family, you need to do the following:

Display (or Store) Them in a Good Environment

Even if you go to great lengths to not mishandle famous family heirlooms, the elements can still do a lot of damage. Wherever your heirlooms sit in your house, protect them from the elements that will degrade them over time, such as:

Warm Temperatures:

Rooms hotter than 72 degrees with humidity higher than 55 percent may warp certain materials like wood. If you must heat a room, keep heirlooms away from the heat source.


Just as too much sun is bad for your skin, it can be bad for heirlooms. Keep your items out of the sunlight. Move furniture away from open windows and don’t handle paper or cloth items in sunny areas.


Bugs love wood and paper, so heirlooms in your attic or basement are prime targets. In addition to regular pest control, sealed in acid-free boxes with acid-free tissue paper.


Keep heirlooms away from water and other liquids. If high humidity can do significant damage, imagine what water spilled directly on the surface can do. Plus, items stored in leaky attics or basement may become prime targets for mold and mildew.


Clean Them Properly

Most new furniture and clothing can withstand harsh cleaners – heirloom pieces cannot. Even if they’re made of durable materials, they may not stand up to the chemicals and additives in today’s cleaners. The best way to keep family heirlooms in top shape is to clean them as gently as possible.

Wooden furniture, for example, is especially vulnerable to damage. Commercial cleaners leave a shiny finish at first, but over time they build up on the surface and may even strip off the finish. A better solution is a gentle cleaner with natural ingredients like vinegar and lime juice. Other natural ingredients will be just as gentle on the metals and fabrics that make up other precious heirlooms.

Handle with Care

Unlike items in storage, great family heirlooms can start to look less than great due to the stresses of everyday use. Clothing can get stained or stretched out. Furniture can get scratched and small objects can fall off shelves and break. If you plan to make family heirlooms a part of your décor, make sure you handle them with care.

The best way to protect great family heirlooms is to not handle them at all. Keep them stored in protective packing or display them in protective casing. This isn’t always possible, so you may need to set rules about how to handle certain items. For instance, kids can do a lot of damage to paper, clothing or furniture. They may be too rough with fragile materials or handle them with dirty hands. Teach them how to handle these heirlooms properly or keep them away altogether.

Of course, kids aren’t the only ones who can mishandle family heirloom furniture and other items. You may think you’re being gentle with a scrapbook or end table, but the scrapbook could be compromised by your hand lotion or the table could be scuffed by the lamp base on top. If you have to handle an heirloom, do so with clean hands and a gentle touch. Also, find ways to protect items from other objects, such as cloth or plastic covers.

Don’t Fix It Yourself

Most of us know how to eliminate or cover up a small flaw in furniture and other items. When it comes to family heirlooms, the cure could cause more damage than the problem itself. The chemicals in modern scratch fillers or wood finishes can be harsh on old wood, and stain removers could leave unsightly spots on vintage dresses and suits. If you want to restore or repair heirlooms, hire a professional to do it. They have the materials, experience and expertise to keep items looking or working as good as new.

After doing everything possible to preserve your best family heirlooms, you may wonder why you’re doing it. Of course, you want to keep family traditions alive, but some of those pieces look so old you wonder if they would even fit into your modern-looking home. Can family heirlooms find a place in a more contemporary setting? The answer is yes!

How Can Family Heirloom Furniture Fit Into My Home?


Styles and tastes change over time, so it’s a rare object that can maintain its relevance and appeal after several generations. This is especially true when you consider the individual tastes of the people who inherit things like family heirloom furniture. Even if you have a strong emotional attachment to these inheritances, you might wonder if they fit into your current style. They can if you know how to incorporate them.

One advantage of many family heirlooms is the palette of colors. Furniture, for instance, comes in light wood or dark wood, but always a neutral color that complements any color scheme. A maple wood rocking chair would stand out against a dark living room set, while an end table with a cherry finish is the perfect focal point when surrounded by seating in beige or tan.

Another advantage of many heirlooms is they often have a simple design that neither overwhelms nor dictates the motif of a room. When people pass down family heirlooms, examples of intricate patterns and overly complicated styles are few and far between. This is why your mother’s little black dress will never go out of style – because it provides the perfect backdrop for any classic or modern piece you want to pair with it. The same goes for heirloom furniture.

Whether that heirloom piece is the focal point of the room or an accent in the corner, it’s already built to work in your home. It’s up to you to decide how it complements newer purchases. Some ideas recommended by interior designers on how to mix wood tones like a pro include:

Light and Dark:

If your pieces are made of a dark wood, frame them with lighter pieces. For instance, light fabrics work well with dark chairs and tables. This scheme even works when two heirloom pieces are different shades. A lightly finished cedar hope chest provides a nice contrast when covered with the deep-red quilt your grandmother knitted decades earlier.

Traditional and Modern:

One of the latest trends in home design is to mix old and new pieces to create a unique look. Instead of buying antique chairs for a rustic kitchen table, buy chairs made of stainless steel, or pair a wood dresser and armoire with modern bedding.

Neutral and Bright:

Most pieces handed down come in neutral shades, but these shades are well paired with bright colors. Dark reds, greens and purples add a classy, understated tone to the room, while lighter tones like pink and periwinkle can make the room seem brighter and younger, even when holding old heirlooms.

Keep these rules in mind when adding your own heirlooms to the family tradition. If you’re in the market for new furniture but you want to ensure its usefulness and longevity, look for pieces that incorporate simple design in neutral tones, and make sure they’re of a high enough quality to withstand the wear and tear of this generation and several generations afterward.

The best family heirlooms are those that not only offer sentimental value but also maintain the same beauty and quality they had when they were first bought or made. Whether you’re giving away family heirlooms or buying heirloom quality furniture for the first time, remember that an heirloom is only as precious as the time and effort you put into maintaining it.

To learn more about maintaining family heirloom furniture, sign up for our newsletter. If you currently have heirlooms you want to keep safe, check out our selection of family chests.


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