10 Most Common Heirlooms

patchwork quilt heirloom
A handmade quilt is often a treasured piece of history.

You've seen it in a hundred films, the in-fighting among siblings to see who'll inherit the good silver, the grand piano, the lake house or Grandma's engagement ring.

Heirlooms represent family wealth, history and memories. We covet them, but often for different reasons. If your sister loves the silver candlesticks while you're more interested in the crazy quilt your great grandmother made by hand, don't be too surprised. Identifying with specific heirloom objects is half the fun and one of the things that makes visiting an antique shop so interesting. From Depression-era glassware to decorative buttons, we collect what we value, pass on what we prize and keep what gives us comfort.


10: Musical Instruments

balalaida woman heirloom
This is a balalaika. Admit it, you didn't know what it was until you saw the picture.

Did you just think of a grand piano or Stradivarius violin? Well, fabulously valuable musical instruments are common heirloom candidates, but so are other, less impressive musical items. How about the lowly harmonica or tambourine? Think of the craftsmanship used in making balalaikas, wooden drums or even wind chimes. Sound evokes strong sense memories, and it isn't so surprising that musical instruments -- even those with little monetary value -- would be popular heirloom keepsakes.


9: Clocks

You may not have a convenient place to wear your grandfather's pocket watch, but chances are that it has pride of place in a drawer or chest somewhere. Timepieces, from grandfather and grandmother clocks to stone sundials, are almost a cliché when it comes to heirlooms. The lesson is explicit, and the timepieces themselves are a testament to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of past generations.


8: Recipes

recipe box heirloom
Follow Grandma's recipes and soon your kitchen will be filled with smells from years gone by.
Ablestock.com/Getty Images/Thinkstock

Some of the most beloved heirlooms are recipes. Heirlooms related to food and meals can carry powerful memories with them. If you like to cook, there's nothing quite so touching than owning a mother or grandmother's handwritten recipe and knowing that the chocolate smudge you see in the corner was made by her very hand. If you've ever loved a cook, her recipes are priceless.


7: Photos

From posed sepia prints to thick Instamatic candid shots, photos, photo albums and framed pictures are prized heirlooms in most families. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? With printer and scanner technology as advanced as it is these days, it's easy to duplicate and distribute rare family photos to all your relatives.


6: Letters and Diaries

letters hands heirloom
What's more valuable than words written by a loved one?
Michael Blann/Photodisc/Thinkstock

If you're into e-mail and texting, consider letters and diaries the personal communication method of past generations. They're intimate, and the handwriting and personal insights of your very own forbearers are a revelation, even if they're just talking about the price of eggs from the local market. First-person accounts of important events and even the daily passions of curious, articulate people add a touching footnote to history. Take good care of your family's personal papers. They're a unique slice of days gone by, and -- who knows -- they may end up in the Smithsonian one day.


5: Weapons

Favored by men and boys everywhere, weapons are coveted heirlooms with explosive potential. (Sorry, we couldn't pass on the pun.) Actually, all types of weapons are popular. Since there always seems to be a war raging somewhere, trophies like pistols, bayonets and knives are admired by veterans and passed on from one generation to the next.

You don't have to be a hunter to admire a well-made weapon or enjoy the stories that go along with it. A word of caution, though: If you have to demonstrate how to use that boomerang your great uncle left you, don't forget to yell, "duck!"


4: Quilts

kids quilt heirloom
The new generation may love that quilt as much as you did.
Jupiterimages/Getty Images/BananaStock/Thinkstock

Quilts are a uniquely American art form, and quilting has become hugely popular in recent years. Wonderful heirloom quilts that used to be common flea market fodder are now gracing the walls of art galleries across the country. That crazy quilt your gran used to drape across the back of her sofa could be worth a bundle. Its vivid velvets and cunning decorative stitches, stylish cobweb motifs and vintage buttons might also be the stuff you dreamed on during childhood naps. If you've ever dressed up in a quilt and imagined yourself a queen with a royal cape to match, that imagination-inspiring quilt is priceless to you, regardless of what it's worth on the open market.


3: Furniture

We particularly love the tradition of leaving one of the girls in the family a hope chest. These cedar chests were designed to store items like quilts and tablecloths that a young girl would make, collect and then take with her into married life.

Hope chests are just one example of heirloom furniture, and the nice thing about these pieces is that they can be almost anything from a plant stand to a hat rack. If the chest shows some wear and rough treatment, so much the better.


2: Stories

woman book heirloom
Old tales are a treasure.

If "family" is a small clan related by blood, then the stories family members tell and remember about one another become their cultural history. Family anecdotes often fade over time, and after three or four generations, the details can be lost unless some enterprising family historian rescues them from obscurity.

While it's making the rounds at your annual family reunion, enjoy the retelling of Uncle Wilbur's exploits during the Great War. One day the storytellers at the "old folks" table will be gone, and it'll be up to you to carry the tales of your collective family history to new generations. Being the historian of your clan has its advantages: Part of you will live forever.


1: Jewelry

You may be thinking of your grandmother's heirloom engagement ring, but rings aren't the only popular heirloom jewelry items. Cameos, hairpins, hatpins, brooches, pearl necklaces, earrings and cufflinks -- well, the list goes on and on. If it's a shiny trinket, someone will want it even if it's just to take it apart and put it in a new setting. Jewelry is valuable, but it also comes in contact with the body, so there's an almost intimate connection with another person. If that person is dear to you, the object has enormous value apart from its monetary worth.

Common Family Heirlooms FAQ

What is a family heirloom?
A family heirloom is a token that is passed down through generations of family members.
What is considered a family heirloom?
There are different types of family heirlooms, but they are typically items that represent family wealth, history and memories and are passed down through the generations. A few different types of family heirlooms include jewelry, recipes, letters, quilts, photos and more.
How do you preserve family heirlooms?
Heirlooms that are paper should be protected from light, heat and moisture. Fabric items should be stored in special preservation boxes. Jewelry should be kept in a velvet or satin-lined box. .
What is it called when you pass something down from generation to generation?
Items that are passed down from generation to generation are called family heirlooms.
Can a house be a family heirloom?
A house can be considered a family heirloom.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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  • Danforth Diamond. "The Heirloom Engagement Ring." Undated. 7/4/10.http://www.danforthdiamond.com/heirloom-engagement-ring/
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