Is the family heirloom dead?

By Dan Hiestand, Houstory Marketing Director

Are family heirlooms still important?

This week, the Houstory Hearth examines two pieces of evidence — ironically discovered on the same day in a batch of Google Alerts — that contradict one another when answering this  question. It got me thinking: I should take the temperature of the family heirloom movement.

houstory, family heirlooms, heirloom registry
2 articles, 2 viewpoints.

First, the side contending that family heirlooms are a thing of the past for many.

According to an article at United Kingdom online lifestyle magazine Female First, the family heirloom may be on life support.

That Web site cited a survey released by, a moving company that recently reached out to 1,456 people (18 or older)  from around the UK to ask them what their “highest safety” priorities are during a move.

To that end, the company furnished  participants with a list of items they consider to be valuable items typically found in a home.  The wide-ranging catalogue included everything from computers to clothing to furniture, and, yes, family heirlooms. The big winner was — drumroll please — the television! Approximately 52 percent of respondents said they considered the television to be the most important item in their home, primarily due to high replacement cost. Not surprisingly, the PC/laptop came in second at 48 percent. Admittedly, if my house was burning, my laptop would be right up around No. 1 on my list, too.


family heirlooms


Family heirlooms didn’t even crack the Top 10, coming in at the No. 11 spot with 14 percent of the overall vote.

According to Female First, “Respondents to the study were given a list of potential items with the following question: ‘What items would you consider to be Family heirlooms?’ This revealed antiques to be the top heirloom at 51 percent , followed by jewelry at 48 percent and silverware at 36 percent.”

The article continued: “Brits were then asked: ‘Do you own anything that you would consider to be a family heirloom?’ to which the 59% of participants said ‘no’. The remaining 41% said that ‘yes’ they did own a family heirloom. When asked if photographs were regarded as heirlooms, 62% of respondents said that they ‘treasured’ photographs but didn’t consider them to be heirlooms. However, 46% of these said that they wouldn’t be ‘too concerned’ if they lost their photos as a large number were still available on social media.”

Even the study’s author,, seemed surprised.

“It used to be the case that the family silver came first,” said Daniel Parry, spokesperson for as quoted at Female First. “Now it seems that it’s the family television. Or possibly the laptop. It’s probably a modern take on society; priorities change over time, but it’s sad to think that we’ve gone so far that family heirlooms are no longer regarded as something precious.”

I would be curious to see the demographic information on the study, as in how many males were asked vs. females; how many 20-somethings were asked vs. 50-somethings? Let’s face it, often times the closer people are to facing their own mortality, the more important things like legacy and family heirlooms become.

So, there is that side, which highlights the naysayers who believe family heirlooms have little to no importance when it comes to family history.

The second article is much more anecdotal by nature. But I think it shows that asking that question, “Is the family heirloom dead,” completely depends on the respondent. If I were to ask my 16-year-old niece if she values grandma’s quilt as a family heirloom, she might say “yes,” — but probably for reasons that have much more to do with aesthetics than with sentimentality. You know why? Because legacy — and thankfully, the great beyond — don’t really matter as much to her right now as much as the latest iPhone apps, or filling up her car with gasoline.

Fast forward 50 years, and you’ll likely be singing a different tune. Developing legacy in kids is — much like forcing them to eat vegetables — something they may not like now, but something they will be thankful for later.

Which brings me again to the second article in The Guardian newspaper, entitled, “My family heirloom project.” The project, undertaken by a photographer named Joakim Blockstrom, attempts to catalog family heirlooms through story and photo (sound familiar?)

According to the article, the project has grown in popularity and scope, transitioning from a photographic endeavor to something about family history.

The article stated: “As word spread about Blockstrom’s project, he began to hear from strangers who had objects for him to photograph and their own stories to tell. Gradually, he concluded that we all have heirlooms, though they are not always what you would imagine. ‘I have one person who has nothing from her dad except for one of his teeth. It’s a bit gory, but does an heirloom have to be beautiful?'”

To see some of these stories, visit the article. To me, his project shows that interest in family heirlooms is a passion that exists, and can be tapped.

I can’t tell you how many hours Mike and I  have spent listening to stories about family heirlooms — told by complete strangers — at trade shows, local antique stores or genealogical society meetings. Coupled with hundreds of registered users at our own company, The Heirloom Registry, and shows such as Antiques Roadshow on PBS, and it’s clear to me that there is a large contingency of people who hold passion for provenance.

Family Heirloom

So, there you have it: two opposing views on family heirlooms, captured on the same day. I have my own opinions, but we want to hear yours.

What do you think — are family heirlooms dead? What are the factors that play into whether or not family heirlooms are important (age? gender?) 





  1. In the words of Monty Python, our heirlooms must be crying, “I’m not dead yet.” Agreed, priorities have changed, but if history is any indication, those heirlooms will become chic in about 25-30 years. Whatever survives could even become quite valuable due to scarcity. So, I say, don’t melt the family silver quite yet; it could fund a grandchild’s college education.

  2. Great comments Denise! These things are cyclical, aren’t they? And I completely agree: A college education may be sitting right on your shelf. Or at least a decent vacation.

    I see the appreciation people have for family heirlooms — and in turn family history — in much the same way I see the enjoyment derived from a weekend backpacking trip, or preparing a delicious meal from scratch. The mindset for these types of lo-fi activities all have the same ingredients: simplicity and mindfulness.

    To fully appreciate an heirloom, a person must be mindful of its significance. However, In this hyper-tech world we live in, where you are constantly bombarded with messaging, technology and the like, the ability to be mindful is a talent that seem to be fading with each new version of the iPhone. But I agree: This is all cyclical. In the end, we all want a sense of true connection that things like family heirlooms provide us.

  3. Heirlooms take many forms and shapes and I suspect many have a “momento” of their ancestor although it may not be valuable in a monetary sense. Saving a computer is almost a necessity, as it has become for many a repository of memories (photos, correspondence, etc.) and financial and other data including genealogical sources.

  4. Hi Norm: thanks for the comments. I know if there was a fire in my house, the first material item I would grab would be my computer!