Honoring the Legacy: Creating an Heirloom Box

I’ve reached that point of social distancing where I’m seeking out all of the projects that were once put on hold: cleaning out my closet, creating shadow boxes for the kids, and my favorite – organizing an heirloom box! Before I share with you how to create your own, let’s nail down some of the basics.

Heirloom v. Keepsake

As a child, I always loved digging through my parents’ room to find the treasures they’d stored away. And after my dad passed, it was so comforting to find poems he’d written my mom, photos, and notebooks filled with recipes and ideas. Since then, I’ve decided to leave the same treasures behind for my children and began collecting random items in graduate school. Fast forward to today, I had a huge box in my own closet filled with things I hope to share with my son and daughter. But with some extra time at home, I figured I’d sort through and make distinctions between things I thought would be fun for them to see versus things I’d actually want to pass down.

Heirlooms are cherished items passed down from generation to generation due to either their monetary or sentimental value. These include things like family jewelry, timepieces, quilts, or furniture. But in my opinion, keepsakes are just special items attached to a specific time, experience, or memory. I would categorize most photos, journals, awards, and trinkets as being keepsakes – they’re great if you hang on to them but they aren’t devastating to lose. Of course, this is all subjective and will vary from person to person.

Creating Your Heirloom Box: 

IMPORTANT: Decide if you’ll just store your heirlooms or if you’ll want to create a display.

Storing

Step 1: Wash your hands and consider wearing gloves if you’ll be handling items that would react to the oils on your skin (especially antique jewelry and older photos)

Step 2: Separate heirlooms from keepsakes. Items that are true heirlooms that you want to pass down, these will be stored with more vigilance than your keepsakes.

Step 3: Create info cards. These can be made on index cards or strips of paper but will include the following info for each item you’ll be putting away. Each card should include:

  • Purchaser name
  • Name of original recipient
  • Date of purchase
  • Brand name
  • Material or other specifications
  • *Bonus if you can name the store and store location of the purchase

These info cards are by far the most important part of your heirloom collection. What makes heirlooms so precious is their story but unfortunately the details are usually the first thing to get lost. Do your descendents a favor capture as many fun details as you can remember!

Step 4: Gather your supplies based on the details below.

If you’re planning to store items that would be damaged by too much humidity (think jewelry, photos, or leather) you’ll want to use a box with a tight seal that keeps out direct light, cold, or heat sources. Otherwise, any box will do.

  • Silica packs – (these are the mysterious little sacs of clear pellets that come in shoe boxes) absorb excess moisture to keep jewelry from tarnishing, leather from rotting, and photos from sticking together. Since silica packs can’t hurt, it’s always a good idea to include these and be on the safe side.
  • 3M anti-tarnish strips – can be placed inside of smaller jewelry boxes or bags to further prevent oxidation. Jewelry should be separated by metal and diamonds should be kept away from other pieces that it could scratch.
  • Archival or acid-free tissue paper – great for wrapping china, silverware, jewelry, photos, or other documents. Archival boards should be used so, separate each piece of artwork.
  • Cloth or linen dust bag – perfect for storing pearls (because these thrive with a little air and moisture), canvas, and leather.

Overall, low humidity, room temperature, and away from direct light is the minimum. Now let’s be real, we all had that grandparent that didn’t use any of these methods and their valuables managed to do fine. The goal here is to make some sort of effort to turn a 50-year heirloom into a 100 year one and even the slightest bit of effort can make a big difference.

Displaying

For my heirloom display, I used a shadow box. You’ll first want to create a flatlay of what you want your display to look like and purchase your box based on the depth you’ll need to fit everything inside. While you’re shopping online, be sure to get a pack of flathead straight, dressmaker pens. Next, choose the base or background of your display.

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I wanted to use this little dress as the background of the display. I tucked the sleeves and positioned the lace; this is the look I was going for.

 

The mistake I made was thinking that I could just wrap the dress around the back of the mounting board. Depending on the the parts of your frame/shadowbox your mounting board might also be your backboard. In this case, as with mine, wrapping things around will make it too thick on the sides and then you won’t be able to “close” the frame.

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I quickly realized that this method of wrapping the dress around the back would NOT work. The entire dress and everything else would need to be pinned to the front of the display so as to not make the sides too thick to close the frame.

Every item that you’ll be putting in the shadow box will need to be pinned in place on the front mounting board. If any item will be hanging in your display, just bend the pins to create a hook for the item. See below for how I hung a pearl necklace in my display.

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This is where you have to get creative, making hooks for certain items.

Making the flatlay of your display is the easy part because, well, everything is laying flat. But be mindful of how gravity will shift your items and pin accordingly. For some items (ring and pearl necklace) I had to bend the pins knowing that when I stood the frame upright, some things might fall inside of the box. This was a bit of a headache with several trial and error attempts. I ended up having to use several more pins than I expected to keep things in place. Consider how comfortable you are pinning things to your background item (in my case, I was pinning through a 30 year old dress). At some point I’ll have to open the display to make sure the weight of the items aren’t pulling the pins down, thus tearing the dress. Remember that you can pin things upward to help combat the gravitational pull (something I’ve learned with hindsight).

Here’s the finished product of my display!

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Heirloom box includes: Infant dress (background), pearl necklace, silver spoon, filigree bracelet, dress sash, cocktail ring, and baby bracelet

Your decision to display or simply store your items will depend on who you’re sharing them with and the value of each item. Some more expensive items or ones that are less durable may just need to be stored away. For this display, I tried to choose things that could withstand being pinned in a glass box that would be exposed to sunlight but will monitor it over the next year to decide if I want to keep it as is.

This fun project will definitely change over time but is perfect for celebrating the beauty of your family’s legacy, even if only for the moment. Can’t wait to see your treasure!

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