Popular Family Artifacts and Why We Keep Them

Why Is Family History Important?

Basic genealogy research that includes the dates and places is great. It's generally accurate and it connects us to the names of ancestors and where they come from. Family history however is far more in depth, it gives us a perspective of who we come from and the actual history of our families.

We may find pictures of individuals we never met, discover stories of an ancestor who may have been a war hero or even have a special item passed down through the family. The broader context of family history can also uncover mistakes in official documents which may change the family story.

What Are Family Heirlooms?

In its most basic terms a family heirloom is an item which has been passed down through generations of a family as a symbolic inheritance. It may or may not have an intrinsic value and often the sentimental connection within the family is of the greater importance.

Historically in English law an heirloom was considered as chattel (personal property) which by immemorial usage was considered annexed by inheritance to a family estate. Today it is considered far less formal for the most part.

In the more formal interpretation it is something that the object's owner could dispose of for profit in their own lifetime but should they die intestate it must pass to the rightful heir of the individual.

Today we see heirlooms more as tradition and these can vary from something valuable to something only important to the family history.

Examples of Popular Family Artifacts

Heirlooms are also sometimes referred to as family artifacts and those with a deep connection to the family history are fortunate if such things exist within their own family. This means that generations before have had the forethought to hand down something to their descendants that their own hands will have held and that they have used.

Household Items

These may seem mundane but basic, well made household items can be family artifacts. These could be an old cooking pot, tea sets, or other practical everyday items that may have stood the test of time. A set of quality plates for example may be passed down. They may have value as an antique or it may be as simple as being a great grandmother's stirring spoon from the old country.


This is a very common form of family artifact, some form of jewelry. These can be extremely varied and include things such as broaches, necklaces and rings. These may have been gifts or associated with the wedding of an ancestor. The family artifact may then have been bequeathed based on specific tradition to an eldest child with the intent that they to one day would do the same.

This jewelry may vary in value monetarily but its worth within the family lineage may vastly outweigh any monetary considerations. It is likely jewelry is not only among the most common types of family artifact but also among the most prized.

Hobby Items

These items in terms of financial value are likely worth almost nothing but to the family they have incalculable significance. They are usually items that an ancestor has made themselves and passed down through the family. This could be a needlepoint sampler, a painting, some craft hobby or anything handmade by an individual.

When these items were made they were done so generally for fun and as a pastime however the work put into these items and often the beauty of them can hold a great deal of meaning. Owning a craft piece created by a great grandmother creates a connection to that person you may never have met.

Handwritten Items

To many these are considered almost genealogical holy grails. Handwritten letters or journals can give us a glimpse into the thoughts and events of our ancestors' lives. In my training as a genealogist I had to find an example of a handwritten family letter to try and learn more about the family history. This was a fascinating challenge and I could not escape how valuable this letter would have been to the writer's descendants.

Reading something in the handwriting of your ancestor creates a connection to them. Pursuing their words can tell you of their personalities and wants in life.


Photos are so valuable to a genealogist and finding older ones of long distant ancestors is great. What would be fantastic however would be to have an album of family photos well preserved and passed down through the family. Something that potentially could be added to may be even better.

Military Artifacts

These family artifacts can speak to a specific period of an ancestor's life, a time in which they saw huge changes and perhaps suffered. Military artifacts can include paperwork, medals, trench art, spent munitions and other physical remnants of service in the armed forces.

Great grandfather may have been saved by a cigarette case he had in a top pocket that stopped a bullet. This dented case might be passed down in the family as a symbol. It may be particularly poignant if that ancestor had not yet had children meaning that but for the case the family would not exist as it is now.

Why Do We Keep Family Artifacts?

The answer to why family artifacts or heirlooms are so important is very simple. As humans our time on this planet is short, at most a little over a century if we are lucky. Generations have been born, lived and died before us and we only have a physical connection to the ones who were alive in our own lifetime.

Something physical like an heirloom that was once held by or even made by our ancestors can last with care for centuries and many generations. This is a connection to our ancestors not only the original owner or creator but to those who have possessed it since.

We therefore hold on to family artifacts because they remind us of specific ancestors and give us a connection to them. They also speak to our family's history and carry with them stories of those long gone who we wish to remember.

Final Thoughts

A family artifact can be literally anything that was once owned or made by one of our ancestors. Its importance is held within its connection to an individual and not always from what it is. A family artifact can be used practically, decoratively or as an educational tool to understand the family history.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

Link To or Reference This Page

We spent a lot of time downloading, cleaning, merging, and formatting the data that is shown on the site.

If you found the data or information on this page useful in your research, please use the tool below to properly cite or reference Name Census as the source. We appreciate your support!

  • "Popular Family Artifacts and Why We Keep Them". NameCensus.com. Accessed on June 19, 2024. https://namecensus.com/blog/popular-family-artifacts-and-why-we-keep-them/.

  • "Popular Family Artifacts and Why We Keep Them". NameCensus.com, https://namecensus.com/blog/popular-family-artifacts-and-why-we-keep-them/. Accessed 19 June, 2024

  • Popular Family Artifacts and Why We Keep Them. NameCensus.com. Retrieved from https://namecensus.com/blog/popular-family-artifacts-and-why-we-keep-them/.