All families have heirlooms they hold dear. We cherish these physical objects because they represent a link to our past, a way to understand more about the people responsible for us being here today.
To explore the power of these objects, we asked family historians to share a favorite family heirloom. From a cake plate passed down generations to weathered family photos to a long-cherished doll, heirlooms and the stories behind them can add life to any family tree.
Incorporating heirlooms into family gatherings can be a powerful way to get loved ones to open up and share stories about relatives, past and present.
Let the following genealogist stories inspire you to share stories of family heirlooms at gatherings to illuminate the lives of ancestors. Then download the FamilySearch Memories app to record these stories from your family tree to preserve them forever!
Favorite Family Heirlooms of Genealogists
My Granny was famous for her sweets. She made the best fudge, ice cream, cookies, pies, and cakes. Even after she’s gone, our whole family shares her sweet tooth and recipes to keep her legacy going. We even created a cookbook filled with her favorite recipes and, after we printed it, we realized that the desserts section was the largest. As it should be.
Granny was way ahead of her time. She not only had the sweet talent to whip up a batch of fudge in no time flat, she brought in her creativity. My mom remembers how she used a doll inside a round cake to look like a princess, using the metal frosting tip to put on top of the princess’ head and frosted it to be the cutest little party hat.
My mom tells us that Granny made any cake you could possibly imagine. And she always put the cake in her Fostoria crystal cake plate. This cake plate soon represented this legacy of creative sweets and we all loved this cake plate.
I grew up with my mom continuing the sweets legacy and creating castle cakes, car cakes, and anything we could dream up. After my Granny was gone, my mom served on Granny’s crystal cake plate. One day it broke and we all mourned the loss of this beloved cake plate. We missed the memories this cake plate evoked in us.
Several years later, my youngest sister was at an antique mall and found a Fostoria Crystal cake plate. She was so excited she took a picture of it and sent it to us all to see if it was THE one. We all agreed! It was one exactly like Granny’s cake plate!
My sister bought the cake plate and we surprised my mom on Mother’s Day – best Mother’s Day present ever! This cake plate may not be the exact one my Granny used, but this is an heirloom we all love and it brings such happy, sweet memories we can pass into our own children!
My favorite family heirloom is the Union Case with two photographs of a man and a woman, who I believe are my second great-grandparents, Isaac Seaver (1823-1901) and Lucretia (Smith) Seaver (1828-1884), who married in 1851 in Massachusetts.
Isaac is my only Civil War soldier ancestor. Maureen Taylor, a photo dating expert, indicated that the clothing was typical of the 1850s. The photos are ambrotypes encased in a gutta percha hard plastic case. I am told these were typical photographs taken before a man left for Civil War service so it may be dated about 1863.
I received this Union Case from the estate of my father’s youngest sister, Geraldine (Seaver) Remley in 2007. She likely obtained it when her mother died in 1962. It had, apparently, been handed down through four generations of my Seaver ancestors.
I was 18 and had moved away from home for the very first time. All the way from Utah to Idaho – a whole state away. I wasn’t worried though, I was brave. Or so I thought. After the excitement of the first few nights wore off I was ready to go home and sleep in my own bed. I was ready to have Mom make me some dinner – all I’d done is kind of snack on stuff in my kitchen. I was ready to get a big, warm hug and have someone ask about my day.
I worked up the nerve and swallowed enough pride to let my mom know how I was feeling. It wasn’t long after that that she and a friend of hers decided they wanted to make a road trip – to Idaho. My mom arrived with a big, warm hug, made me dinner and asked me how everything was going. Then, as we sat there on my dorm room “cot,” she told me a story.
I’d heard the story before but it had never meant so much. She told me about a young girl who lived in Ireland and lost her mom when she was about 12 years old. She was a good girl and took care of her little brothers so her dad could still provide for them. She kept house, she made meals, knew her place in her home and was happy with it.
But a few years later when her dad remarried she didn’t know her place as well anymore. She missed her mom more than ever and was invited by an aunt to go to America. So at the young age of 16, she packed up her courage, and utterly alone, got on a boat. As she waved goodbye to her home in Ireland – she knew she would never return to the land and family she loved.
I hugged my mom and thanked her. All of a sudden things didn’t seem so bad compared to what my great-grandmother had done. Her blood ran through me and her story reached out to me like a lifeline – if she could move a world away, I could handle one state. After that Mom pulled out a little package. Inside was a doll dressed in a little red, wool tartan and carrying a bag with a luggage tag that said, “To America, From Ireland.” I love that doll – to this day it is still a reminder that I can do hard things.
This is a photo of my paternal great grandparents – Tom and Rhody Leslie.
Rhody is a six foot tall Redbone, conspicuously devoid of a smile. Tom looks like a little emperor, his face resolute. What a couple!
My father said they (his grandparents) left slavery from Lowndes County, Alabama. I have spent decades trying to uncover (and make sense of) their origins. They are the inspiration for why I am a genealogist. When first I saw this photo, it demanded that I honor the people who experienced the disgrace of slavery . . . mitigated by the glory of Emancipation.
Surely they had dreams. I am proud to be one of them.
What treasures do I have? What part of history and heirlooms can I share with my children, I wonder, as I make their favorite breakfast, chorizo with fresh homemade tortillas? I suddenly stopped and looked at that simple tortilla and realized that without even knowing it I was already sharing an heirloom each time I mixed the masa for a new batch of tortillas.
I learned to make tortillas from my mother. She learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, and so on. In my life I have rolled tortillas not only with my mother and grandmother, but as a child with my great grandmother in her kitchen in Mexico. Laughter and wisdom have been imparted with the push of a rolling pin and the smell of heaven cooking on the griddle. Personal stories of faith, like the widow’s mite, are intricately tied to a single food that can be eaten with everything.
I do not have my great grandmother’s rolling pin, I don’t know if anyone does. Even if it were still around only one person in her vast number of descendants could actually treasure it. But I smile because I don’t need that actual rolling pin to remember the stories of sorrow or the triumphs over difficulty to have an heirloom in my life. Treasures can vanish as I remember my grandmother telling me about the great flood that destroyed her small town. Records, photographs, homes washed away as the river rose, but resilience and faith through even greater trials are now interwoven into my life through her experiences.
The sound of laughter brings my thoughts back to the present. I look over at my girls now and focus on their conversation as they are rolling out the tortillas for breakfast. A new generation of strong women is learning and growing with a little flour dust sprinkled on their cheeks and the light sound of rolling pins on the counter. My stories are now intermixed with the generations before me and they are shaping the lives of my children all with a simple tortilla that I can share with everyone.
Collect Stories About Heirlooms from Your Family Tree!
Whatever heirlooms you and your relatives hold dear, make sure to document the stories behind them. To get started, encourage family members to show and talk about heirlooms during family gatherings. As you explore the significance of these objects from your family tree, record the tales they inspire with the FamilySearch Memories app. You’ll be preserving stories of heirlooms for future generations to come!