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Ancestral Treasures: Historic Preservation of Family Heirlooms

Tanzy Ward

This month I had the honor of doing my first lecture and presentation titled “Ancestral Treasures: The Historic Preservation of Family Heirlooms”. In my presentation, I wanted to emphasize the importance of preserving sentimental objects for storytelling. Each historical heirloom is connected to a fascinating life and memories. Our family keepsakes include jewelry, portraits, letters, furniture, and other valuable objects that have been passed down several generations. 

 My first lecture, presented at the Cherokee County History Center, emphasized the importance of preserving ancestral heirlooms. Each sentimental object has a very fascinating story and is linked to the treasured memories of our loved ones. 

The historic preservation of family heirlooms allows present-day descendants to learn about the past, and our ancestors, and analyze historical events. A World War II-era sweetheart bracelet is not just an accessory but gives insight into the values and lives of those living through historical events. Their experiences, customs, and memories are all connected to family heirlooms. Even if we never had the opportunity to meet an ancestor in our lineage, the sentimental objects they leave behind are valuable treasures. 

Pictured is an antique Edwardian Era Sterling Silver monogrammed locket (Zanathia Jewelry Collection). The locket represents a treasured sentimental memento dedicated to someone. Antique monogrammed heirlooms are interesting to collect and include a fascinating history as well.

Imagine what an item would say if it could talk. The precious moments and memories belonging to the object’s owner are sentimental treasures. Our heirlooms represent a part of the loved one and ancestral story. Properly preserving the objects are important to continue the storytelling. There are several different ways to preserve historical heirlooms. The main start begins with genuine passion and interest. The desire to be a generational ‘gatekeeper’ of precious family heirlooms will motivate us to preserve history.  

It is important for each generation of family members to have a “gatekeeper” of the ancestral photo collection. Antique portraits are one the beautiful ways to honor our relatives and to study the past. The historic preservation of antique photos requires passion, dedication, and care. Pictured is a photo collage of antique photos from my personal collection, featured in my second book “Unsung Portraits: Anonymous Images of Black Victorians and Early 20th Century Ancestors.''

Antique jewelry preservation is such a great way to honor the objects our ancestors cherished. To continue the utmost preservation efforts, it is important to treat every piece with care. This equates to simply not just throwing the jewelry in a crowded box with other items. Take time to properly place each jewelry piece in a separate padded or cotton-lined box with tarnish-free plastic bags. Avoid wearing antique jewelry while gardening and any water-related activities. Understand the different stones or enamel on jewelry and their reaction to chemicals. Always try to consult with a jeweler if you are unsure about how to clean, take care of, and properly repair heirloom accessories. It is recommended to get fine antique heirloom jewelry appraised and insured. 

(Antique heirloom jewelry should be handled with care. It is best to place antique accessories in separate jewelry boxes with cotton padding and plastic sleeve coverings for protection and to avoid being tarnished. Avoid cleaning heirloom jewelry with chemicals and harsh cleaning solvents. Seek an antique jewelry restoration specialist for advice on cleaning and repairing antique jewelry.)

Preserving antique portraits and photographs are very critical when researching historical sources. They are indeed primary examples that reflect the lives, memories, and events of past generations. Certain portraits require more rigorous preservation efforts than others. Daguerreotypes and tintypes can become considerably damaged when exposed to UV rays for an extended amount of time. Cabinet cards, CDV portraits, Real Photo Postcards, daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes should all be kept in separate acid-free sleeve coverings. Store each photo in a debris and moisture-free archival-grade storage box. 

With modern and advanced technology, it is easy to save copies of antique photos. Scanning antique photography allows us to see more details clearly and digitizing the portrait is a vital modern preservation effort. We can share and keep a copy of a photo. Always back up your archival files and separate originals from copies. It is recommended to organize antique photos by date and name. You can also arrange photos by location, relative/ancestral relation, type of photo, and location. Please consult with a restoration specialist of antique photos before trying to repair a significantly damaged antique portrait. 

Pictured is a daguerreotype of an unidentified African American man c.1840-1865. Daguerreotypes are very rare and require proper preservation, which includes being kept away from UV rays, moisture, debris, and other outside elements for long periods of time. It is best to keep all antique photos in separate acid-free sleeve holders and in archival-grade storage boxes. This portrait is included in my personal collection and featured in my second book “Unsung Portraits: Anonymous Images of Black Victorians and Early 20th Century Ancestors’’. 

The title of my lecture for the Cherokee County History Center was “Ancestral Treasures” because every family has sentimental heirlooms that are a part of our story. We can learn and become connected to our ancestors while honoring their lives. Each heirloom was a sentimental object to a loved one and is also a primary source for a glimpse into the past. Whether it is a memento hair locket, wedding band, family photo, letter, photographic jewelry piece, or another type of family heirloom…it is very much a part of our stories. The feeling of staring into the eyes of an ancestor while looking at a portrait or touching a jewelry piece that a relative once treasured are precious moment. We are connecting and learning about those who came before us. We are realizing some of our traits and preferences were shared by our ancestors. We are continuing the legacy of being a gatekeeper of family heirlooms. If an heirloom could talk, the lives and experiences of its generational owners would speak. They are ancestral treasures with fascinating stories. 


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