Growing up, my Thanksgiving table was adorned with Wilton Armetale dishes — heavy, pewter-style tableware that truly looked like something the Pilgrims would have used. Over the years, my grandmother had collected plates, mugs and serving platters a few pieces at a time. She delighted in bringing them out each year, and I truly felt at home when I saw the table set.

One year, after I had taken over the annual turkey tradition, I was stunned and delighted when she showed up at my house with the dishes all packed up to gift to me. Though she no longer hosted the holiday meal, she wanted to enjoy it on the beloved dishes and watch me carry on the tradition. It was a special way to link old memories while she could see new ones being made, as my kids embraced them as part of their festivities.

Using the dishes was an easy decision because they were significant to my Thanksgiving traditions, but heirlooms can be a tricky business since they may hold memories for the giver that the receiver doesn’t share. That’s why gifting them while the family member is still around to reprise stories can be the glue that binds them to family history forever.

Family Recipe Book

Giving Thanks

As with my family, many heirlooms are interwoven with tradition, and that’s why Thanksgiving is an appropriate time to share them, given the holiday’s themes of family and gratitude.

“True family heirlooms have deep meaning and history attached to them, which can be used to illustrate the past,” said professional organizer Kelly Jayne McCann, owner of The Organizing Maven. “I actually like to think of them as story-telling tools, which is fitting since the ‘-loom’ part of heirloom originally meant a tool.”

Create a Ritual

McCann encourages families to make the gifting of heirlooms a ritual that takes place when both people are alive and alert. “When the giver can share the story and the attached emotions, it brings to life the holistic value of the object,” McCann said.

“No longer is it just ‘Great Aunt Emma’s gravy boat’ — it’s the gravy boat that Great Aunt Emma was given by her grandmother, who carried it over from Ireland when she immigrated to the United States to create a new life,” McCann said.

The giver is able to witness the next generation taking over the family history, and the recipient becomes the story keeper to pass down to future generations—a role made richer by the circumstances under which they received the family treasure.

Vintage China

Safe Storage for Family Heirlooms

Heirlooms mean the most when they aren’t stored away just for “special occasions.” McCann recommends incorporating what you can into your everyday life, citing heirloom pottery that her family uses for everyday dining.

“Display the art, wear the jewelry, use the silver, pull out the good china to celebrate life’s little victories — don’t wait for a monumental event,” McCann said.

But sometimes we receive heirlooms that we are not equipped to use.

Professional Organizer Shara Koplowitz, owner of O. P. E.N. (Organizing People’s Everyday Needs) also advocates using what you can, but advises her clients to use proper techniques if they must store their treasures – and never in the basement or attic.

“Weather conditions are often extreme and unpredictable, which can lead to damage,” Koplowitz said, adding that although we usually worry about photos or fabrics, fluctuations in temperature and humidity can harm dishes by creating tiny cracks in the glaze that can eventually lead to breakage.

Silver tea set

Handle With Care

Wash your hands and avoid lotions before handling delicate items, advises Koplowitz, and never store anything that you haven’t washed and thoroughly dried. Make sure to document all stored items as you go, which will not only make it easy to access the boxes you need, but will help preserve their history.

“Take photos for your records and write down as much information as you can about the piece, including any background stories or memories,” Koplowitz said.

Storing Crystal

When storing dishes and crystal, she advises padding the bottom of the boxes with bubble wrap, soft cloth or white tissue paper or using special china storage containers.

“Wrap each piece separately in either bubble wrap or white packing paper, and never crowd,” Koplowitz said.

Also be mindful of storing stemware, cups, bowls and mugs rim side up.

Crystal bowl bottom

Storing Silver

For silver, all pieces should be washed by hand — never in the dishwasher. Wrap the pieces in sliver cloth and then in airtight plastic bags. However, never use plastic bags on unwrapped items, as they are petroleum-based products that can break down over time and stain the silver.

A Great Responsibility

Being the keeper of the heirlooms can be a weighty responsibility.

“If you don’t want to put the effort into proper storage, then you are not the right person to hold the object and should return it or pass it on,” said McCann.  “Proper storage is a way of honoring the history of the object, and of course, maintaining its physical integrity.”

If you’re looking for a place to store your heirlooms, SpareFoot can help you find self-storage at a reasonable price. 

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Cathie Ericson