Passing on Family Heirlooms

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary gives practical tips on how to document and preserve your precious family heirlooms.

Passing on cherished heirlooms is a time-honored tradition – one that predates all of us for as long as history has been recorded. Your belongings may become the heirlooms of tomorrow, but only if you take care of them.

Unfortunately, many family heirlooms become lost through the ages, mostly due to:

  • lack of proper care
  • exposure to harmful substances and environments
  • incomplete provenance
  • overlooking the need for the provenance
  • providing only an oral, not a written history

My Family Heirloom: Box of Lace & Handicrafts

A good example of a family heirloom is a box of lace and handicrafts handed down in my family. The box is full of charming little handicrafts which I adore – and luckily for me, the items have been well preserved.

photo of the contents of a family heirloom box

Photo: contents of the family heirloom box. Credit: from the author’s photo collection.

This vintage heirloom box contains dozens of small treasures, some even with the original price tag. The bundle of dainty lace at the top of the photo has a tag reporting six yards that cost $3.50 from McCutcheon’s of New York. Some of the frilly handicrafts in the box were handmade. There are two crazy quilt blocks consistent with a larger quilt made by my 2nd great grandmother and other garment parts – some partially completed, and others which appear to have been removed from existing clothing. Then there is a lovely little unsigned note which reads:

I bought this Maltese lace in Australia 1900.

When you read a note like this from one of your ancestors, you immediately long for more details.

Luckily I recognized the handwriting, and from other family documents determined which ancestors sailed to Australia in 1900. It was my maternal great grandparents – and fortunately for us, there are several heirlooms and stories connected to their trip.

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Research Your Heirloom in Old Newspapers

I was intrigued about the note, but didn’t know which object in the box was the “Maltese lace.” So I turned to the old newspaper archives to do further research.

A query of Genealogy Bank’s Historical Newspaper Archives showed that by 1904, this type of adornment had reached the height of popularity. For example, this 1904 newspaper fashion article features a photo of a stylish silk suit. The woman’s garment is decorated with “a narrow edging of gray Maltese lace defining the yoke.”

fashion article about Maltese lace, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 19 June 1904

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 19 June 1904, page 18

I found a good description of Maltese lace in another 1904 newspaper article:

Maltese lace is finely wrought, but very open in pattern, so that the decorative design stands boldly, if delicately, out from a background of fairy-like stitches in an open mesh. Made of the finest of silk threads, it has a creamy glow about it that is exceedingly becoming to the face, and it is peculiarly harmonious when worn with silk and velvet.

article about Maltese lace, Evening Star newspaper article 2 January 1904

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 2 January 1904, page 20

With these clues, the choice of which object in the box is the Maltese lace became obvious. I just looked for something with fairy-like stitching that might also be a scarf or mantilla. Although this picture doesn’t do it justice, I believe this is it.

photo of Maltese lace

Photo: Maltese lace from the family heirloom box. Credit: from the author’s photo collection.

Research Tip: While newspapers are a great resource to research your ancestors directly (their stories as well as their vital statistics), newspapers can also be used to research other aspects of their lives (such as their personal items, their communities, and the times they lived in).

Enhancing the Provenance of Family Heirlooms

Appraisers advise that provenance (establishing the origin of an object, and its past owners) adds value to an antique or heirloom, and a large component of this is writing down the object’s history.

So don’t make the mistake made by many families – if you know the heirloom’s story, don’t just tell it, write it down! Document the heirloom’s time period and ownership, and list yourself as the recorder. Add a note in your own handwriting – or if typed, include an original signature. Here are some suggestions for documenting your heirloom:

  • This (description of the item) was given to me (your name) on or about (date) by (name), who was my (relationship).
  • I was told by (name) that this heirloom was made by (name).
  • This heirloom was passed down through the (maternal or paternal) side of my family and given to me on (special occasion).
  • This heirloom did not pass through the family. I found it at an antique shop in (place) around (year). I love it because (description).
  • This note is believed to have been written by (name) of (location), as the writing is similar to a (letter, will, etc.) written on (date).

Don’t forget that you are part of the provenance. My heirloom lace in the box now has a second note:

This piece of Maltese lace was identified by Mary Harrell-Sesniak, in February of 2015.

Care and Handling of Family Heirlooms

Don’t neglect to learn about the proper care of your family heirloom. If something has broken, make sure modern materials won’t harm it before attempting a repair. Get an expert to fix it, or learn how to use traditional materials for your own repair.

As my family learned with an early American antique chest, it is better to use a traditional, natural glue than more modern products that might contain acid or wood-destroying chemicals.

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Library of Congress Has Heirloom Preservation Tips

The Library of Congress is the keeper of many of our country’s treasures. As such, they have accumulated much expertise, and have created numerous guides about preservation of works of art, documents, and other objects that might be in your family heirloom collection. Many heirloom preservation tips are found in the Collections Care section of their website.

Here you will learn about determining the material and condition of your heirloom. The material it is made from will determine much of its care. There are different guidelines for different materials, whether they are artwork, paper, textiles, photographs, metal, wood, ceramics or other fine materials.

In general terms, however, there are a few universal guidelines: avoid

  • uneven temperatures
  • materials with acid
  • handling without gloves (your fingers can damage items)
  • light

As the Library of Congress notes in their guide Why should you care about light damage:

Light causes permanent and irreversible damage that affects the chemical composition, physical structure, and, what is usually most obvious, the appearance of the collection item… There are no conservation treatments that can undo light damage.

Expert Advice for Documenting & Preserving Your Family Heirlooms

In addition to the ideas in this Blog article about documenting and preserving your heirloom, be sure to network with experts for further advice – and never underestimate the power of social media. Look for special pages on Facebook, Pinterest and Google+ about family heirlooms. You’ll often encounter an expert commenting on the same social media pages you frequent.

Sources for additional heirloom advice:

  • antique experts
  • appraisers
  • curators
  • fine auction houses
  • historical societies
  • reference guides
  • social media groups

I’ll conclude with this photo of a very fine collection of silverware:

photo of silverware

Photo: silverware. Source: Library of Congress.

Tell us about your own family heirlooms in the comments section, especially any advice you have about documenting and preserving your cherished items.

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Quilting & Genealogy: Treasured Family Heirlooms

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary writes about a family treasure of particular interest to genealogists: heirloom quilts.

Heirloom quilts and coverlets are comfort for the soul. They tell many a tale of family history, so it comes as no surprise that genealogists and quilting go hand in hand.

Perhaps an heirloom quilt has passed down through your family, as some have in mine.

Emalena’s Quilt

One such quilt in my home was made by Emalena, our family baby sitter.

She was a single woman who remained single until late in life. She treated us like her own children, and gave us many of her beautiful quilts. This one, fashioned in the traditional wedding ring pattern, became a present for my parents.

photo of a family quilt from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

Photo: family quilt from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

One has to assume she made a quilt for the kind widower she married. Perhaps one of her quilts “sealed the deal” with the marriage proposal. We certainly hope so!

Jacquard Coverlets

Two family treasures that came through my family were matching Jacquard coverlets.

Notice that this one, which belongs to my aunt, has the name Sophronia W. Seymour inscribed on it, along with the year 1834. Sophronia was my second great grandmother, and in 1834 would have been 20. Perhaps it was part of her trousseau, an old tradition in which items were collected for a girl to take into her marriage.

photo of a family coverlet from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

Photo: family coverlet from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

For many years, I thought that a family member had been a talented weaver – but now I know from historical research that this was probably not the case. Around 1820, a special loom was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard which truly revolutionized the world of weaving.

article about the Jacquard loom, Evening Post newspaper article 29 October 1833

Evening Post (New York, New York), 29 October 1833, page 2

As Jacquard’s loom was programmable, it was much like an early computer. Intricate fabric patterns were made much quicker than before, and often in a double weave motif. The coverlet above, and another matching eagle and heart patterned example that also came through the family, are black on white on one side, and white on black on the other.

Not every quilt or coverlet contains names and dates – but when they do, they are wonderful genealogical gems (click this link for examples.)

Jacquard died in 1834, and it is a shame that so many people today do not realize the impact his loom had on the world.

obituary for Joseph Jacquard, Daily Atlas newspaper article 29 October 1834

Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1834, page 2

Textile Research

Newspapers offer a fine opportunity to research heirloom quilts and coverlets. Many of the newspaper articles are rich with detail. Not only can they help you date your treasures, but you can even find patterns to help you make your own family heirlooms.

One of the earliest newspaper reports that I could find regarding a quilt dates to 1752.

Margaret Rogers, a young girl apprenticed to Alice Dodd of Philadelphia, ran away. The runaway ad detailed Margaret’s garments, along with a light blue homespun quilt that she took with her.

runaway ad for apprentice Margaret Rogers, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 12 October 1752

Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 October 1752, page 7

Looking through 19th century newspapers you’ll find various quilting and sewing advertisements, some even detailing the machines our ancestors used.

ad for sewing machines, New Orleans Tribune newspaper advertisement 23 October 1866

New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 October 1866, page 3

By the 20th century, quilting had become all the rage. Quilting patterns appeared in newspaper articles, including this pretty Star Center Quilt block “stolen” from a neighbor’s laundry line. News articles frequently detailed color patterns and tips to assemble the quilts. For this one, red, white and blue were suggested:

Any house w[h]ere there are many children would be apt to furnish easily the blues and whites, and even if the red had to be bought for the purpose the cost would be very slight.

quilt block pattern for the Star Center Quilt, Broad Ax newspaper article 18 July 1903

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 18 July 1903, page 3

A favorite of modern quilters are patterns, of which there is no shortage in newspapers. Many of the famous Laura Wheeler designs were published, including this basket applique quilt design from 1936.

quilt patterns by Laura Wheeler, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 15 January 1936

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 15 January 1936, page 3

This 1937 newspaper article detailed the activities of Miss Minnie Eldridge, a home demonstration agent from Texas. She educated various Louisiana farm women on how to fashion quilts and taught them about the flower pot pattern fashionable among the mountaineers of Tennessee.

article about quilting, State Times Advocate newspaper article 11 August 1937

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 11 August 1937, page 13

Quilting is no lost art in Louisiana, not even a decadent one, if the enthusiasm and interest registered by hundreds of farm women at a quilting lecture Wednesday morning may serve as a basis for determining the quilting status in the state.

Other Resources for Quilting Examples

Don’t forget to explore social media, and in particular Pinterest, for quilting examples. A favorite of mine is the Library of Congress, where I found this lovely picture of quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

photo of Jorena Pettway sewing a quilt, Gees Bend, Alabama, c. 1937

Photo: sewing a quilt, Gees Bend, Alabama, c. 1937. Shown are an unidentified girl, Jennie Pettway, and quilter Jorena Pettway. Credit: Arthur Rothstein; Library of Congress.

Hope this inspires you to research your textiles, quilts and coverlets in newspapers. Be sure to share your finds in the comments.

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What Do You Plan to Do with Your Old Family Heirlooms?

Maybe you have an old cedar chest, or other large object, as one of your prized family heirlooms.

photo of a cedar chest

Source: Abernethy’s

We have an old chest that was owned by my grandmother, Adelaide Mildred (Wright) Kemp (1893-1949), and it was said that it had been passed down to her mother, Ida Estelle (Smith) Wright (1873-1963).

Now if the only family heirloom we had was one object, we might be able to handle that—but wait, there’s more.

Much more.

There are also old photos—large ones, framed—and dishware, glasses, books, and on and on.

What do you do when your home has become the designated family museum—and you start looking to the future wondering what will become of these treasured heirlooms?

Start by taking a photograph of each heirloom and upload that to your online family tree. Record which relative owned the object and tell the object’s story. What is it? Who owned it? And why is it important to the family?

That’s a start.

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But, as you look to the future, what is your plan if other family members are not interested in these old heirlooms?

What is the best way to preserve these pieces of your family history?

What solutions do you have for heirloom preservation?

What is your plan?

Please share and give all of us the benefit of your best thinking on this.

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Researching Your Family Heirlooms: Gaudy Dutch Pottery

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how old newspapers can help you better understand your family heirlooms, focusing on some Gaudy Dutch pottery she inherited from her grandmother.

The first step in compiling your family history begins in your home: gathering all the family documents, letters, photos, and heirlooms you can find. The goal of many genealogists is to go beyond the names and dates on their family tree; they want to get to know their ancestors as real people—the lives they led and the times they lived in.

Heirlooms help fill in some of your family’s stories—and in order to better understand these precious objects that have been passed down through the generations, research in old newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives can be really beneficial.

Pottery Heirloom from My Grandmother

Among the heirlooms from my grandmother’s estate were several items described as “Gaudy Dutch” pottery. There were several plates and an assortment of cups and saucers, each hand-painted and of a unique design.

photo of Gaudy Dutch pottery

Source: the Author’s personal collection

We divided these old pottery pieces among family members, without knowing their personal history.

Yes, we knew that they had passed from our great grandmother to her daughter, but nobody could ascertain how many generations of the family had owned them—much less used them to sip tea. At the time, I remember being impressed that these pieces had come all the way from the Netherlands.

History of Gaudy Dutch Pottery

However, after doing some newspaper research I realized that my assumption was incorrect: Gaudy Dutch pottery did not come from the Netherlands after all. Actually, this type of pottery was made in England for export to the American market, primarily between 1810-1820, with some examples made through 1842.

The style is known primarily as Gaudy Dutch, but similar styles can be found under other names, such as Gaudy Welsh and Gaudy Ironstone. Only 16 patterns of Gaudy Dutch were ever made: Butterfly, Carnation, Dahlia, Double Rose, Dove, Grape, Leaf, Oyster, Primrose, Single Rose, Strawflower, Sunflower, Urn, War Bonnet, Zinnia, and once called No Name. (Can you guess which pattern I have? See answer at bottom.)

You can view photos of Gaudy Dutch pottery and learn more here: Kovels Price Guides.

The descriptive term “gaudy” came from its Japanese Imari-style patterning, but the other half of the name, “Dutch,” derived its popularity from German settlers, known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Dutch did not indicate an origin from the Netherlands, but from Germany (as “Deutsch” means German). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennsylvania_Dutch.)

The Dutch Never Made Gaudy Dutch (Pottery), Oregonian newspaper article 19 November 1978

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 19 November 1978, page 228

Researching Heirlooms in Newspapers

How can you use historical newspapers to research your family heirlooms? Well, for one thing, early advertisements provide a uniquely interesting environment to explore the history of heirlooms.

Although I knew that the name of my pottery was not originally “Gaudy Dutch,” I still searched by that keyword in very early newspapers—and quickly discovered absolutely nothing.

For my next queries I incorporated descriptions, such as “painted tea cups,” and these search results were a little more fruitful. Although I’ll never know for certain, I suspect the painted cups and saucers of this 1817 Massachusetts newspaper advertisement were for my type of earthenware.

pottery ad, Boston Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 4 February 1817

Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts), 4 February 1817, page 3

Further newspaper archive queries into later time periods turned up a number of helpful articles, such as this one.

article about Gaudy Dutch pottery, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 March 1965

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 March 1965, section 3, page 7

Tea Time and Our Ancestors

How many cups of tea have been poured into my Gaudy Dutch teacup, I’ll never know—but I do know that the custom of tea drinking will forever be entwined in the fabric of American history.

Yes, there was a time, during the Boston Tea Party (1773), when Patriots hurled tea into Boston Harbor. But our American ancestors returned to imbibing their favorite non-alcoholic drink: tea. I like to think that this cup kept someone company on a cold winter’s night, was there during extended birthing of children, and even during the best of times!

I hope you’ll consider researching your family heirlooms in newspapers. You never know what you’ll find! If you do learn something interesting, share it with us in the comments section. We’d love to hear your story, and see if it inspires others.

What Gaudy Dutch Pattern Is It?

It is “Single Rose”; follow this link from Google’s image search to see the diversity of the “Single Rose” pattern of Gaudy Dutch pottery. To see other samples, search images by their specific pattern names.

photo of Gaudy Dutch "Single Rose" pottery

Source: the Author’s personal collection

Do you have special pottery and dishes passed down from your ancestors? Share with us in the comments.