Family Heirlooms

I received the following email from Jeff a week or so ago which is really what inspired me to focus on obligation clutter again this week. It is amazing the desperation we sometimes feel when faced with the dilemma of “I don’t want this thing but it’s family history so I really can’t declutter it. What am I to do?” Anyway read Jeff’s comment, where you will hear that desperation, and we will go from there.

I really appreciate your wonderful posts. They, as well as other sites and books, have spurred me on to GET RID OF STUFF! I (we) have been successful in a lot of areas, but the one that gives me the most problems is inherited stuff. I’m an only child, and both my parents are gone now. I have in my garage a trunkful (and other containers) of sentimental and historical stuff that I seem paralyzed to dispose of. Diaries, WWI, WWII memorabilia*, PICTURES!!!! (even one of Lindbergh standing on the wing of his plane), and family stuff for over one hundred years. Nobody in my family ever threw anything away! I have no other extended family remotely interested in the items, and my own children are thoroughly modern and don’t care (yet.) I find myself almost wishing for a tornado (I’m in Oklahoma) to come and take away the stuff so I don’t have to worry about it anymore! To top it off, my wife will have the same situation when her parents pass on.

Being an only child makes this situation both easier and more difficult for Jeff at the same time. At least he knows the items are his alone and it is his decision as to what to do with them. But if he had a sibling who cared to have the items it would be so much easier to pass them on. Then there is the complication of whether Jeff’s children will change their minds in the future and want the stuff themselves. As I see it there are many things Jeff should consider…

  1. If his children are old enough to make rational decisions about the items ~ that is not to young to realise the significance of what they are being offered ~ then he is free to let them go. I would suggest that anyone over the age of 25 has enough of their own individual personality to make this decision. It doesn’t guarantee that they still won’t change their mind but they will however be old enough to remember they were given the choice.
  2. If the items are from beyond Jeffs parents generation ~ that is his grandparnents, great grandparents… ~ then it is fair, and maybe even a legal requirement, to offer them to any existing family members ~ uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews… ~ before making the decision to hand them on any other way. If someone else in the family wants to carry on the tradition of handing these items down then that is a good thing. Should Jeff choose this option perhaps he could give them with the proviso that they come back to his children should they wish it in the future.
  3. Should there be no other family members to take the items then another method of keeping possession of them while having them enjoyed by others is to loan them to a local preservation society or museum. By loaning items they remain your property to be retrieved when desired. In Jeffs case military museums would be a good choice to loan his WW1 and WW2 items to.
  4. If Jeff is happy to hand them on permanently he could outright donate them to the local preservation society or museum of his choice.
  5. Should all these other options be exhausted then Jeff might just choose to sell the items.

*I will say that I personally think that military medals  should remain within the family if possible. For personal reasons I do have a rather bias opinion on this though.

Multi generational family heirlooms deserve special consideration when decluttering. I am not talking about a few fancy tea cups your mother once owned that have no real story attached except that they are pretty, made by Royal Dalton and might be worth a few bucks but real family history~ items of great personal value and possible even great monetary value. While thinking about this post I began doing a little research and found a web post that I though covered the subject of handing on heirlooms quite well and I implore you to read if as just a start to researching this subject. Here is the link

TLC ~ 5 Things to do before passing down heirlooms 

From a financial point of view I would always investigate the monetary value of any heirloom item before making the decision to sell or donate. The more information you are armed with the better decision you stand to make. How many stories have your heard where someone has picked up a half million dollar item for $50 at a garage sales. I know I have.

Today’s Mini Mission

Declutter some grown children clutter ~ This is something long ago left behind by your grown child.  Your home is not a storage unit, ask them to collect it and let them know you are going to get rid of it otherwise. With a little diplomacy this is possible without alienating them.

Today’s Declutter Item

It would be a lie to say I have no grown children clutter to get rid of because I have three boxes of it in the garage and that is only the start. One of the children is still at home while the other isn’t settled enough to expect her to collect her stuff yet. So I have no examples to declutter today but I do however have these two little bits to clutter from my own teen years. One is an elastic ankle support from my days of several sprains playing softball while the other is a leather bat grip. I am at a loss to explain how these things have stayed in my possession for so long especially since they were in our first aid kit that has been decluttered several times already. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Sport Clutter

Something I Am Grateful For Today

Aborting my continually interrupted attempts to get the house work done and going instead to a friends place for coffee and cake. Gotta love resorting to plan B.

“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” Brother David Steindl-Rast

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. Rebecca B. A. R.

    I would really encourage him to pass the diaries and WWI/WWII stuff onto the local historical society. There are so many people interested in that sort of thing, that it would be much loved by some individuals in the public. I would advise him to have everything scanned or taken pictures of, (and put on a thumb drive or and external hard drive) before giving them away. That way, if someone in the family (0r his kids) want to see or read the things later, there will still be a “copy” in the family. He may even want to consider turning the diaries into a book, especially if they are interesting to read. My mom would love to have these type of treasure in our family, since she is very much into our family history.

    • Good points Rebecca, and let me add to that ~ Included in the book of digitally saved copies should be a list of where the items have been sent if donated, loaned and distributed throughout the family.

      • Good point Colleen, I was just about to add that. I worked in a District Council archives department for a couple of years and we had to keep a log of where things came from, what had been destroyed etc

  2. Yeah, I thought “family trees” when I read this post!

    • Also a good point Lynda. There is nearly always someone out there researching your family tree. Even if one doesn’t have any or many close relatives there will be someone research a tree that shares a branch with yours. Go online ~ to sites like or or Family Search ~ and investigate this before giving up on finding relatives who would love to preserve those family heirlooms.

  3. I hope Jeff will find an answer to his “what do I do with” question. Our family last name stops with my brother. While he is married they chose to have no children. We are not the only granchildren of our grandparents but on both sides all I have left are aunts so my brother is the last Jones. I have surveyed the family and none of my cousins want the family “collectibles” we have because they don’t remember any of them as my brother and I are so many years older than the rest of the cousins. With this in mind, when Mom and I became housemates she decided to take anything that was worth money and sell it. So all we have left is some sentimental items and a few items we didn’t sell yet because I became lazy about it and it was easier to just store them in this small box. After looking the box over again this morning I find there are only a few things that I think will even be worth listing for sale. I’m glad we sold most of the things back a number of years ago when we could get more for them than we could now.

    • The value of items can certainly fluctuate over time as interest waxes and wanes. It is always the luck of the draw as to what time frame of interest you are in when you decide to selling.

    • I am so glad my brother is making some massive decisions lately. Nothing serious yet, but I guess the next generation of my last name will come sooner than later. I am relieved because now I dont have to have children in order to keep the cool stuff from my family in my family (not just pictures but also really great furniture).
      that reminds me. Me and my brother have been ‘joke-fighting’ over some really cool family heirlooms from my dads side. like a black music box from 1880 or the old cash register from my grandfathers shop…
      With my new brainwashed decluttered mind, I can tell him now, that whatever he wants, he can have, as I dont want to own stuff anymore. even if its pretty. oh what a relief. yay…

  4. One thing I would say is that if you are currently in your teens or twenties, think long and hard if you have the opportunity to dispose of family papers. They may mean nothing to you at this stage in your life, but you may sorely-regret losing family papers, journals and photographs when you get a bit older and develop the very common pastime of family historian.

    About 20 years ago, a death in the family and a muddle with a will meant that a house which had been in the family for 80 years was to be left outside the family. The home was built in the mid-Victorian era and had had a checkered history including being a public house, and we had papers as a family which related to the house from it’s beginning and which we considered that we didn’t want to keep but didn’t want to be lost to posterity. The house was auctioned-off and changed hands several times in the next few years, so it wasn’t a simple matter of handing off a bundle of stuff to the new owner.

    After discussion, the family donated the original paperwork etc to the county’s archive, where it will be safeguarded and also available for future generations, including future owners of that house, if they want to look for it. This kind of thing may be potential solution for somebody else, too.

    • Good point GreyQueen, family history can mean so much more to some members than it can to others. If a person is in possession of this history the right thing do is to hand it over to someone passionate about it if you are not so yourself. Particularly items of a written nature.

  5. This was a good post for me because just yesterday I told Colleen that me The Anti-China/Crystal/Silverware Girl planned to accept a family china tea set when the time comes. It has been in the family 5 generations and as my brother is in his 40’s no wife/girlfriend or children, I felt I should take this as I have two daughters.
    This article made me consider that perhaps my only cousin from my Uncle’s side of the family could be considered too. Initially I discarded this idea as her children are step-children until I considered that I was adopted as a baby, and my daughter’s are not any more of a natural descendant than her step-daughters are. I haven’t made a decision nor do I feel I need to make a decision until the time comes and I hope that it doesn’t come for many many years yet.

    • My goodness Moni that is an interesting situation. As an adult it must have come as a shock to find out your were adopted. I hope you coped well with that revelation. Life is certainly full of twists and turns.

      • Hi Colleen – the good news is that I knew all my life I was adopted, I knew before I even knew what it meant, so no shock trauma there. What I meant is that it occured to me that I shouldn’t discredit my cousin as a possible person to take this item – we are both on equal branches of the family tree, but I felt as I have biological daughters I should carry it on from my mum. Have realised that my cousin’s step daughter has just as much of a blood connection to the original great-great tea set owner, as my daughters do, given that I am an ‘import’. 🙂 So if when the time comes my daughters aren’t keen to be in line for this tea set, I will now with clear conscience offer it to my cousin.

        • Ahh now I get it. I though you had come to this realisation after finding out you were adopted not that you had known all along. You are right the claim does seem fairly equal. Hopefully someone will want them and if not perhaps it is time to set them free. Stuff is just stuff after all, relationships are what really matters.

  6. Great post – there are many good points covered and it has given me quite a lot to think about.

    I can see why the ankle support might end up in the first aid kit, but the bat grip is a puzzler! Thanks for the chuckle.

  7. I remember happy days at my granny’s house: she has a tin box full of photos – they aren’t sorted in albums of any kind, but there are photos dating back to the 19th century as well as shots of her grandchildren – all happily mixed. Once in a while after drinking a cup of tea at her home, she would bring that box out, everyone would pull out random photos and share their memories connected to the persons on the pictures. It was a fun thing when I was a child to listen to these stories about that great-aunt who was an opera singer or about my twen grandparents, when they were building the house we were in. It still is a lot of fun. She rarely brought out other mementos apart from the pictures and I think that one tin box was just the right size for a “family treasure box” for all of us to enjoy round the coffee table. I’m aiming at one tin box full of stories to share with my future family as well.
    Even with rather ordinary things she gave me when I moved out, she would have a way of sharing their story when she passed them along. Like, when I wanted that little old suitcase from the 50s, because it was cute – and also handy (I used it for train travels a lot, though it is now holding my wool and fabric stack), she shared the story of it being bought for her honeymoon – and also some really funny anecdotes tangled to that.
    I also have a friend from an “old” family, with family crest and everything – her family home is full of history. It’s also kind of nice to be there surrounded by old books, old silverware, ancestors on canvas and dusty dark furniture – but I think I’m rather a “treasure tinbox” kind of gal and I’m happy I won’t have to deal with too many family treasures in my life. I think, it’s really a different kind of responsibility when you inherit the remainders of many centuries.

    • what a great story. opera singers and twen grandparents, with tea and old pictures. good times.

      my grandparents never talked about the past. I can remember once when they brought out an old album with the “emergency-money” from war, but other than that – Not a word… My grandfather was 101 when he died in 2005, and I was too young to understand (21) what that meant. So I never asked him any questions, same with my grandmother. Although when she was getting close, she told a couple of stories from her childhood (while she couldnt remember what she had for lunch)…

    • Sanna, what does “twen” mean?

      The tin box of memories sounds just right!

    • This post is particularly interesting to me.
      My MIL has spent her life pulling together and keeping a houseful of family heirlooms, not just “things” someone once bought, but furniture, china, silver, paintings, documents and so on, some dating back to the 16th century and most around early 19th century, so they’ve been in the family for hundreds of years. My in-laws live in this (exceedingly tasteful) museum of antiques! As I and my daughters are keen on history, we are interested in the story of it all and the family connections (family tree from 1634, anyone?!) and wouldn’t dream of breaking up the collection, but we all have our own households and style of living, which isn’t with delicate antiques, beautiful though they are! My dilemma is going to be how to deal with this collection in the future, as we don’t live in an area that is all that interested in history (no historical societies), and the family is not of enough note for a museum to be interested. So far, we have come up with the idea of starting a foundation and finding a smaller property to put the collection – but you can imagine the burden this is on us and the costs that will be incurred!! Not really my idea of a simple life 😮

      • Hi MelD,
        this is a difficult situation to be in. On one hand you want the history and the items to stay together and in the family but on the other you don’t really want the things in your home. Life has changed so much in this modern age that all these things just aren’t appreciated so much any more.

  8. While we were cleaning up at the Senior Centre recently, one of the problem items was a studio photo of a regiment from WWII. The donor was deceased and nobody knew anyone in the photo and no one wanted it but we didn’t feel we could just toss it. A friend contacted the regiment listed at the bottom of the photo and they were pleased to receive it for their museum. So Jeff might be able to send war-related heirlooms back to their point of origin or a military museum where they would be appreciated.

  9. Interesting post. My son is an only child and will inherit the sentimental stuff from me and my husband. I have already told him (and will continue to tell him) to keep what he wants and to sell/give away the things that they do not want – with my blessings and with no guilt. We just came home with stuff that my mother-in-law has given us. I haven’t had a chance to go thru it yet, so I don’t know what will be kept. My husband will help me decide that and since our son is coming for a visit, I’ll have a chance to talk to him about it as well.