Preserving Precious Heirlooms

Extended Family Walking Through Summer Countryside

A sampler lovingly stitched by your great-grandmother or a photograph of a long-ago family gathering is a precious link to generations past. If you have  such items, you probably intend to pass them along someday to loved ones.

Follow these tips to protect your treasured heirlooms:


  • Identify each item. Record everything you know about the object, including who made or bought it. If the item relates to a particular period-for instance, a photograph of someone in military dress-you may want to research the circumstances to round out the history.
    Label old photos gently on the back with a lead pencil, and scan the photos. Photograph each heirloom and store copies of the photos on CD; make copies for relatives, too, for safekeeping.
  • Shun the sun. “Sun and all other light sources damage old items, including photographs, books, textiles and paper,” says Sarah Buffington, curator for Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Pa. (pop. 7,769). “If you display something, keep it out of direct light, ideally in the dark.”
  • Store in the proper environment. Conditions people find comfortable-approximately 68 degrees with 40 percent to 50 percent humidity-are ideal for heirlooms. Don’t store them in basements, attics or near outside walls. To be absolutely sure about your storage conditions, invest in a light meter and a hygrometer, which measures humidity.
    Store photographs either in acid-free albums or layered between sheets of acid-free paper in acid-free boxes. When framing old photos, use acid-free mats and backboards to help prevent deterioration.
    Books stored on an open bookshelf need regular dusting. Be sure they are not squeezed tightly together, as this puts pressure on the spines.
  • Keep pests away. Check your heirlooms every six months or so. If you spot signs of pest infestation, such as holes in objects or tiny piles of sawdust, call a local museum, library or historical society to locate a professional conservator who can restore damaged items or offer advice.
  • Handle with care. “Handle old textiles with clean hands and touch them as little as possible,” says Christine Meyers, a quilter in Hopkinton, Mass. (pop. 13,346). “If a quilt isn’t displayed on a bed, store it in an acid-free box with acid-free tissue paper.”
    Old wooden chests can exude sap, so don’t store textiles in them unless they are well-wrapped in acid-free paper. Many dry cleaners that handle wedding dresses will sell the paper.
    Keep stored materials flat, not folded, as folds cause wear. If large textiles must be folded, occasionally refold along different lines to minimize stress.
  • Keep damaging materials away. “Don’t bundle old items into plastic dry-cleaners’ bags, which trap moisture,” Buffington says. “Pins, paper clips and staples rust, so remove them before putting anything away.” Chemicals, liquids and adhesives are other potentially damaging materials best kept away from heirlooms.
  • Don’t attempt a do-it-yourself restoration. Fixing a torn photo or a chipped piece of china is a job best left to an expert, ideally a conservator.

Thoughtful care of family heirlooms will preserve their place-and yours-in history to delight and inform future generations.

Found in: Family
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