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!