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How to Care for Family Heirlooms: 3 Safekeeping Methods from Preservation Experts

Prevent your precious keepsakes from degrading with these easy tips.

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Most every family has something — and often many things — that’s been handed down through the generations; a lamp, a vase, a record collection. For my family, it’s my grandpa’s black metal Victory dome lunch box. According to my mother, my grandma made and packed his lunch in it five or six days a week; and my grandpa took it to work with him for nearly 40 years. We have other heirlooms — needlepoints are a family favorite — but to me, grandpa’s lunch box is the most beautiful. It speaks to my proud working-class roots; reminds me of my grandma and grandpa’s love for each other; and makes me feel connected to the family that came before me. As such, I take great care of it. (My mother makes sure of it!)

Keepsakes vary by family, of course. Among the most common are jewelry, silver, and fabric items like quilts and tablecloths. A 2021 OnePoll on behalf of Shinola illustrated just how attached Americans are to their family heirlooms. (Watch the video with poll highlights below.) The question, though, is how to care for family heirlooms. As they age, they become increasingly susceptible to degradation owing to sunlight, dampness, harsh temperatures, or general negligence.

We spoke to heirloom experts, each with a unique area of knowledge, to get their advice for storing family keepsakes. Here’s what they had to say.

Store jewelry in fabric bags.

“Each piece must be stored separately since hard gemstones like diamonds can scratch softer ones,” says memorabilia expert Denise Levenick. She advises that you start by cleaning jewels with a damp, lint-free cloth and mild dish detergent. Once clean, pat your jewelry dry immediately, then store each piece — pearls, diamonds, gold, and silver — in its own fabric bag in a jewelry box.

Wipe silver with anti-tarnish cloths.

“Just give silver utensils or dishes a quick wipe every few months with a cloth embedded with anti-tarnish particles,” suggests Levenick, who recommends Goddard’s Silver Care Cloth. Even easier: Buy silver cloth by the yard and line your storage drawers with it for extra protection.

Keep linens and tablecloths in pillowcases.

Quilt expert Betsey Telford-Goodwin has good news for families with precious fabric and cloth heirlooms. “Stored the right way,” she says, “tablecloths, quilts, and crocheted afghans can be handed down for years.” Just make sure they’re kept in a dark place, and make sure they’re not smooshed and suffocated. Why? Because, says Telford-Goodwin, “old quilts are made of natural fibers, like cotton or wool… Simply store them in a white pillowcase on a shelf or in a trunk away from sunlight.”

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