Write It Down! Label Your Family Treasures

IMG_7665My maternal grandmother, Lydia Bowen Wright, loved her family’s story. She loved genealogy and she took a lot of pride in the long history of her ancestors in America. I could, for example, take you to the very spot in Boston, Massachusetts, where our ancestor, Jared Bourn, lived in 1640.

Lydia was a record keeper in all ways. We have her household logs that account for every penny that entered or left the family pockets in the years of the Great Depression. The story goes that, if her monthly records were off by even a penny, she would search under couch cushions and the bottom of handbags until she located that missing coin.

One way she kept records, and passed information on to her children and grandchildren, was to put notes on lots of household items. For example, I have tablecloths with notes that record their dimensions and which table at the church suppers they were best suited to.

When I was younger, I thought this was silly and a little compulsive. Now, of course, I realize what a gift it was! It gives me valuable information about the item and the connection it had with our family. Because I also have a lot of old family photographs (which my grandmother also labeled!), I can attach the old item with a face and know that this was the man who made that little chest of drawers or the woman who carried that silk fan.

This little wooden knifebox or silverware tray is a good example. I see this sort of thing at antique shops—they’re not that uncommon or special. But this one is special because I know its provenance and its provenance is the same as mine!IMG_7670

IMG_7682My grandmother wrote the label taped to the bottom. It’s so nice to see her handwriting! The label is stained and faded but readable:

My grandmother, Julia Ann Bowrn, used this tray for her silverware. I expect that her father, F. Amos Bowrn, the cabinet maker, gave it to her. Or my grandfather, Truman D. Bowrn—also a carpenter may have made it.

IMG_7683It’s not just a random, primitive wooden tray anymore!

This man may have made it.

f.amosbowrnOr this one.

Truman BowrnIt was handmade by man in a long line of men who worked with their hands and made useful and beautiful items from wood.

This woman used it.

Julia Haynes BowrnHer hands and her daughter’s, and her daughter’s, and her daughter’s, and my hands, have all gripped the handle and helped wear to smoothness the wood in that spot.

I am a complete fool for this kind of thing! I keep the tray on my kitchen counter to corral dishtowels. Occasionally, on a holiday, I actually put silverware in it, as my foremothers did. It’s a little thing but it means a lot to me.

And, here I am, at the end of this post and I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, exactly.

Identify your family heirlooms and use them and love them?

Talk to your older relatives and get all the details about your ancestors and what they did in their lives? Do it now, before it’s too late?

Yes and yes.

Most importantly, I guess, I’m saying we should write down what we know. Make labels for family treasures and connect the labels to the pieces so the precious information is not lost. After all, it isn’t just family history, it’s information about daily life in a certain time and place, which is valuable in a much broader sense.

And don’t just label the items you think might have monetary value; the sentimental value will be much more important in the long run!

And, even if it seems vain and unnecessary, label what you make. Someday the recipes you use and the blankets you crochet and the photos you take will be part of your family history, too. And your ancestors will be thrilled to be able to connect a name and face with the treasures you leave behind.


And, for fun, a photo-bombing feline!


31 thoughts on “Write It Down! Label Your Family Treasures

  1. Specially agree about the labeling. As someone who buys and sells vintage and antique quilts you would be surprised how many are not labeled in any way…..about 95% I would say.
    Even if you buy a vintage quilt tomorrow, put your own label on it ” bought at******** from ****”

    • That’s a great point, Jan–at least the quilt’s story gets some sort of chronicle–better late than never. I am ashamed to admit that I have not ever put labels on the quilts I’ve made . . . need to remedy that . . .

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes! I have so many things that belong to my family: hand embroidered cloth, a christening robe, bits of china, old letters – all sorts of things. And I don’t know a single story. My parents are no more – there’s nobody who can tell me a thing. I’m determined to salvage what I can from this and am beginning to record what I can of my family’s story for the generations to come. And you’re right. Where better to begin than with the things I can really identify because I made them?

    • I need to get much better about practicing what I preach. I am ready to finish a quilt for a show and it has to have a label so I’m hoping to make several labels, all at once, to put on the other quilts I’ve made. And some for the old quilts I own and . . .

  3. I don’t have many heirlooms, but I don’t know much, if anything, about the ones I have. I don’t have a big attachment to “things” in general. I could get rid of most everything I have and not miss it, from a sentimental standpoint. But there are a few things…

  4. As a buyer and seller of antique and vintage items, I’m quite frequently amazed by some of the things I come across and I think to myself “How could the family have let this item go?”….something like your tray that has a personal note attached, a family photo album or bible that has family history written in it. I think some people just don’t care and just want to get rid of all that “old stuff”. Sad….

    • It could be they don’t care, it could be that the family has basically died out . . . either way, it is sad. I do love the items I find that have some sort of provenance, some sort of the history of the people behind the piece.

    • I agree! I worry that our computer age will be the end of the piles of family photos that we all have around. I almost never print my copies of my digital photos so there’s no photo album to hand around at family get-togethers and reminisce over.

  5. Loved reading this piece! What a priceless gift your grandmother has given to your family! Amazing that she could take the time to document everything when her daily life must have been filled with a multitude of chores, from dawn to dusk.

    • If my grandmother had been born in another era, she would’ve ruled the world. She was so organized and energetic and sensible–and, yes, I’m so glad she wrote things down!

  6. Aww, I never think of the things I make as becoming part of a family history, but you’re totally right! The knifebox is lovely, and it’s incredible that you know so much about it’s origins. Your grandmother was a clever lady! I know we have have a lot of family heirlooms around the house, I should ifnd out more about them xx

    • Go ask questions about your family’s treasures! Do it now, before you move away and get too busy. It’s easy to postpone until it’s too late . . .

  7. Timely, timely, timely. Having been given or left a lot of family ‘stuff”, without provenance, I am often at a loss when asked about this and that. I try to keep records but even I am not as dedicated as your grandmother. I love to hold items that have been in the family for generations. It’s a precious experience. My engagement ring is made from my grandmother’s wedding ring which makes it nearly 100 years old that it has been on a family hand. 🙂

    • I love the way you put that–“on a family hand.” I don’t really know WHY it matters so much to me that something belonged to my family (after all, it belonged to someone’s family and my family is no better than the next), but it DOES matter to me. I’m going to try to do better with practicing what I preached in this post . . .

  8. What a lovely story! This is so precious. Writings like that bring the past closer to your own life and explains so much about the way we feel and act. It brings the people from your past closer to you as well. I love it when I buy old books,and they have little writings in the margins and underlined texts. I can almost “see” the people’s faces when they were reading and something caught their eye.
    I have started labeling certain family treasures as well. My sons appreciate that. With the family from all over the world and still living all over the world, family and domestic history easily get lost.
    And I think, you use that lovely, cherished tray in exactly the right way!

    • You’re so right about family history getting lost when people are moving around–we pack things away and lose track of them and their stories. I also want to get around to labeling the hundreds (thousands?) of photos I have from family. Everyone sees me as the “family historian” so all the stuff seems to end up on my doorstep!

  9. Wow, it’s wonderful how your grandmother recorded all this information. It adds so much meaning and value to the items. Many items in my house have a story–but it’s all in my head. I should try to follow your grandmother’s example and write some of it down. .. sigh. . . if only I could find the time.

    • Oh, Sheryl–do try to find the time to write it down! Maybe once you’ve finished Helena’s diary you could evolve your blog into a place to take a photo of your treasures and write a paragraph about each?

  10. I love this post. It hits my very sentimental heart! I have kept letters from my grandparents and great aunt. I love to see their hand writing, it brings them closer to me. When I was a teenager I made my grandparents tell me about their past and all the relatives they could remember and I recorded it the best I could sans computer (it was the dark ages after all). My grandmother jotted down notes on items that she found special and even added names she wanted them to go to. I love this! And to see your family did it too! It’s so important to feel that connection, to me anyway. I love seeing your relatives and the knife box, of course you use it, it’s wonderful!

    I’m a fan of old and historical. You really caught my attention with this post!

    • It’s so good to know that other people feel this way! I’m pretty much the only one in my family who is this sentimental so all the family records and letters and photos (and many of the treasures) get handed off to me. It’s lovely but also an awesome responsibility–I keep worrying that I should be doing more to preserve all the information and memories!

      • I think, or I have noticed I seem to be the recipient of all the family treasures too. I worry that no one will care beyond me and it breaks my heart. I love old, all things with a history I really cherish. I’m glad you are sentimental too!

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