From jewelry to letters to military dogtags, family heirlooms keep past generations with us.
By: Linnea Crowther
1 month ago
A family heirloom is any treasured item that’s been passed down by a family member who has died. Some are treasures in the most literal sense, valuable antiques that could sell for many thousands of dollars. Others have strictly sentimental value, but the fact that they’re not worth much money doesn’t make them any less beloved. Family heirlooms can be many generations old, passed from parent to child for centuries. Or they can be newer, something inherited from a parent or grandparent that will be passed along in the future. Most important, whatever they may be, family heirlooms conjure memories of the special people who passed them along to us.
Here are 21 of the most common—and most treasured—family heirlooms.
Many families have a special piece of jewelry that has made its way through generations. It may be an engagement ring or a statement necklace. Maybe it’s got a large and valuable diamond in it, or maybe it’s simpler and worth less money, but there’s always value in the stories that come with it.
Family heirlooms that tell time for us run the gamut from large to small. A grandfather clock might grace the homes of many generations, or a pocket watch might be passed from father to son.
Some of the most treasured family heirlooms are furniture. A well-crafted four-poster bed can last for generations, as can a cozy rocking chair or an imposing wardrobe. Each generation might refinish it to match their own style, or they may let it age gracefully with its original finish.
Recipes are a very special kind of family heirloom. While things like jewelry and furniture can only exist in one family member’s home at a time, everybody can conjure up memories of a lost loved one by cooking their heirloom recipes. The handwritten recipe cards are especially sentimental for many of us, as seeing that familiar handwriting brings back vivid memories even many years later.
Another heirloom where a loved one’s personality can shine through is handwritten memorabilia like letter, diaries, and scrapbooks. Some families have saved letters or journals written by an ancestor generations ago. For others, it’s the love letters sent back and forth while Dad or Grandpa was away at war that are the most special.
Family bibles are some of the most treasured heirlooms, passed through generations and often with a section to record births, marriages, and deaths. They’re not the only books people love to pass down to their heirs — first editions, autographed copies, and even just favorite stories are often favorite heirlooms.
Whether a service member in the family was killed in action or lived a long, rich life after their service, mementos of their military service are often saved and displayed by younger generations. This can include dog tags, medals, boots, and more.
A handmade quilt is an incredibly personal heirloom, reminding its owner of all the hard work Grandma or Great Grandma put in while she made it. Some people prefer to display an heirloom quilt on a stand or hang it on the wall, while others treasure it by using it to warm their bed or couch.
If a loved one collected coins, stamps, figurines, baseball cards, or anything else, the collection is likely to be passed down to the next generation. Many collections increase in value greatly over the years, so this can be an heirloom worth a lot of money.
Real estate is a seriously valuable heirloom, in more ways than one. If a home is inherited and none of the heirs want to live in it, its sale can provide a comfortable amount of money. But when a home is lived in by multiple generations over the years, it becomes a powerful symbol of the family’s endurance. Some homes and farms have sheltered 10 generations of more of the same family over the decades.
Wedding gowns are very commonly passed down, worm by a daughter or granddaughter at their own wedding. But there’s more to heirloom clothing than wedding gowns. We tend to collect a lot of clothing over the course of our lives, often saving favorite pieces even after they’re out of style or don’t fit anymore. Later, those items may be cherished by a loved one after we’re gone, whether they wear them for cool vintage appeal or repurpose them by turning ties into a picture frame or a shirt into a pillow case.
Trunks and chests were once essential pieces of a home. Hope chests held the handicrafts a young woman made in anticipation of her marriage, while steamer trunks carried a person’s worldly possessions as they took a daring voyage overseas to immigrate to a new world. These pieces are so imbued with history that they’re often saved and passed down through generations.
Musical instruments can be expensive and meticulously crafted items, and a well-made piano, clarinet, or violin can last a very long time. Displaying or playing a musical loved one’s favorite instrument is a meaningful way to remember them.
Family photos are some of the best-loved heirlooms, because they bring back people and events with perfect clarity. More recent photos help us remember good times we had with a lost loved one, while antique photos show us the world of ancestors we never met. A parent’s or grandparent’s yearbooks can be a wonderful glimpse into their young life, so they’re just as worth saving as the photo albums they kept.
It’s quite common to pass down weaponry from generation to generation. This can include guns, even vintage ones from previous centuries, as well as knives, swords, and other items. Sometimes they’re used, but it’s often less practical to use these aging weapons than it is to display them or safely store them.
Quality pieces of kitchenware from previous generations can endure in a way that newer, cheaper purchases never will. It’s common for families to have and use a cast-iron skillet or copper kettle that had a place in Grandma’s kitchen decades ago.
When long-ago young women created their hope chests, one of the most common tasks was embroidering tablecloths, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, and other linens. These exquisitely crafted items were used in the homes they went on to create, and their quality and beauty made them worth passing down.
Heirloom art could be a priceless piece from a renowned artist, or it could be the deceased’s own creation, or something in between. Whatever kind of artwork it is, it’s a popular heirloom, one that can grace someone’s home or be sold for a large sum in certain cases.
Not all heirlooms are something you can touch. And some of the most cherished ones are completely intangible — they’re the stories we share through the generations. Repeating those stories when loved ones gather is one way to keep them alive, but recording them on audio or video, or writing them down, guarantees we’ll remember them years in the future.
Yes, vegetables. Not that you can pass down an actual tomato or zucchini from generation to generation. But heirloom plants, whether they’re veggies, fruits, or flowers, are ones that have been passed down via seeds over the years and hark back to a time before today’s large-scale agriculture. These can be some of the most beautiful flowers and most flavorful food plants, and some varieties are named after the families that kept them alive.
A family heirloom can be anything that has been passed down from an earlier generation, and it doesn’t have to been what we think of as an heirloom. So many families have something uniquely special that the unusual heirloom is actually a pretty common thing. One writer described the shovel that’s his favorite family heirloom. Another tells a story of a family that passed down a Scottish king’s rib from generation to generation. Some families pass along woven bouquets of hair, while other families’ heirlooms end up in museums. Whether your favorite heirloom is as useful as the shovel or as symbolic as the rib, if you treasure it, that makes it worthwhile.
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