The Future for Heirlooms

When I looked around my home almost three years ago I found myself staring at items that I would never have chosen for my home. They were inherited. I felt guilty getting rid of them, at first. I learned something along the way that isn’t unique to just me and my family.

Antique dealers and liquidation appraisers are finding that the younger generations don’t want mom and dad’s cherished furniture and dishes.

A study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that the baby boomer generation is now on the receiving end of “the largest transfer of wealth in U.S. History, estimated at $8.4 trillion.”

If this chair had been in its original condition I could have made some real money, instead it was saved from the dumpster and is a favorite seat in my home.

If this chair had been in its original condition I could have made some real money, instead it was saved from the dumpster and is a favorite seat in my home.

Those figures shocked me. Trillions of dollars of furniture, dishes, homes etc will be changing hands in the next few years.

Yet, Amy Lynch, a consultant for Bridgeworks states that those on the receiving end of these items would rather inherit money to enjoy life experiences than care for family objects.

In a way this is a good thing. I believe it means more of us are realizing there is more to life than our possessions. Unfortunately, there is another side to this. What happens to the lifetime accumulation of all this stuff if it isn’t wanted?

No one wanted this as I found it, but being a solid well made piece of furniture I updated it to make it a conversation starter.

No one wanted this as I found it, but being a solid well made piece of furniture I updated it to make it a conversation starter.

These items, many of which are antiques, are losing their monetary value as they flood thrift stores. The rest are being tossed out with the garbage and ending up in the landfills.

I had this old desk cut in half to create a nightstand.

I had this old desk cut in half to create a nightstand.


There is a solution to this problem, as I see it, we need to remake these items. That huge china hutch can be painted, the top can be removed leaving a gorgeous buffet more in line with today’s tastes. The top of the hutch can be unassembled and pieces used for other projects. A glass door can be converted to a gorgeous mirror or picture frame. Or opening up the back with something clear you can create a mini greenhouse.

An old VHS cabinet is now a princess themed bookshelf with skirted play space.

An old VHS cabinet is now a princess themed bookshelf with skirted play space.

I am criticized frequently for painting and changing the look of the furniture I find. Yes, many of the pieces I find are antiques, but if they wont be loved as they were why shouldn’t I update the item to bring them into the present? Just because something is an antique doesn’t mean it will be loved.

So what did I do with my family heirlooms that I no longer wanted? I passed them on to those who did. In many cases I updated the item by stripping off layers of paint to restore the beautiful wood underneath, in others I added paint to lighten it up.

Broken guitar has been transformed into a lamp using found pieces.

Broken guitar has been transformed into a lamp using found pieces.

With a glut of objects and furniture starting to flood used stores this could be the opportunity to break the habit of buying cheap big box store furniture and get your hands on a quality piece that will last, saving the environment in two ways (reducing trash and amount of resources needed to create new items)

As for your unwanted heirlooms, talk to your family. See if your children will want your no longer needed cherished items, if not pass it on now, without guilt, and know you may have saved it from destruction.

What do you think will be the fate of all these unwanted things? Do you have something you are saving to pass on and are you looking at it differently now that you realize it may have very little value either to your loved ones or in the resale market?

48 thoughts on “The Future for Heirlooms

  1. I think it’s so easy now for one or two family members to get completely overwhelmed by things passed down from the previous generation. I know for my great-grandparents and on back, they were simple country folk without a lot of decorative items, or quite frankly, without a lot of anything. They also had a lot of children. So when they died, there were lots of people to split the items between, and not that many things to be passed down, and no one was overwhelmed with “things.” Also, the families tended to live close by to each other, and one generally didn’t have to figure out the logistics of moving large pieces of furniture across the country like now. I have my great-great grandmother’s platter, and it is much more precious to me than if I had inherited an entire set of her dishes.

    • That is an interesting point, Mrs. GV, and so accurate. When I look back at what my grandparents had and what people own now it’s so different. We didn’t have storage units back then that today need cleaned out as well. Fortunately I unloaded so much of my things that my children won’t have to worry about what to do with my stuff.

      Your great-great-grandmother’s platter sounds beautiful and I agree one piece is much more special than several. I have my grandmother’s engagement ring that came with a lovely story from the view of both my grandparents.

  2. I love this idea. And no guilt here about painting, pulling apart or upcyclying anything. Heirloom guilt is like a weight around your neck and I’m sure your family members wouldn’t have wanted that. The new house we’ve just bought has two extra rooms than we have here, though still a small house, and I plan to furnish those with only used items, but ones I love and change to suit our style. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

    • Barbara, you have made a lot of changes, quitting work and buying a new home. Congratulations. I look forward to seeing how you decorate your extra rooms with used pieces.

    • I totally agree with “Heirloom Guilt is a weight” as I have been trying to downsize my own life, and I keep inheriting “things” from Family and Friends including Storage units that have not been seen in decades. I really hate throwing items in the dumpster but the reality is that is where over 1/2 of it goes. Even most charities won’t take this stuff it just becomes a burden and a cost to me.

      Being the son of a step dad that is a hoarder, an aunt that is a hoarder and their friends/family I really see how it is damaging. So, if your ever in the market for used… there is PLENTY! I wish more folks would abandon the big box stores and buy used items of better quality.

      I really see the inheritance of the Boomers and there children in many cases a burden and an expense rather than a benefit. I really wish I could get folks to clear it out before one day they are gone and folks like me have a mess to deal with.

      The biggest part, I am disabled and 50yo and don’t want to spend the rest of my life moving boxes!

      • Michael, I can relate so much to your story. My mother and many other family members were/are hoarders. When my mother died, my sister began carrying boxes outside and marking them free just to get them out as soon as possible. My grandparents, while not hoarders did have a lot of things as a result of having so little growing up and living through the depression where everything was saved and repurposed. When they realized they wouldn’t be around much longer and wouldn’t need all the tools, crafts and such my grandfather began putting ads in the local paper offering everything up for pennies on what they were worth. When he died the house was filled with just the essentials he needed daily. It sure made my job of getting everything ready for auction so much easier.

        When I moved to this apartment, I had gotten rid of everything that didn’t fit into 2 trips in my compact car (and a friend using a truck brought over my bed and a small table). Since then what has come into my home are things I have found out for free (usually out for rubbish) and dragged home. These things my children won’t see as something they need to feel guilty about passing on to the next persons. Plus there isn’t much here, it wouldn’t fill the front yard of most home so it would be easy for them to drag it all outside and be done with it in a day.

        I wish you luck getting beyond having to sort out family’s belongings.

  3. Interesting post. I’m with you! I grew up with antique’s, from both sides of the family. I remember going to auctions with my mom and aunts, quite an education. My sons all frequent antique and thrift stores for cloths, vinyl records (very hip again!) instruments, furniture etc. I went to art school in NYC back in the early 80’s and everyone was into flea markets and vintage/antique shops. We all recognized the superior quality, design and it fit our budgets! So I never hung out with folks that only wanted “new” stuff and that’s fine with me, I’d probably go nuts! The Ikea mentality, cheap, cheaply made furniture that destined for the landfill makes no sense to me, why buy anything that’s not heirloom quality?? Especially when heirloom quality is less expensive than new?

    • Jayne, I’ve never been to an auction but may one day as they intrigue me, not to buy really just out of curiosity. I personally like old pieces that were made well and have plenty of use. Then I don’t mind the feet on the table, which are mine as well.

      I didn’t realize you went to art school but now that you mention it I can see the influences in your home, you have a very good eye for what works.

      As you know when I do shop its most always from thrift stores and the like, I get more pleasure knowing I saved money and and extending the life of quality pieces whether that is furniture or clothes. I had heard vinyl was coming back and find it funny that it is being embraced while the newer stuff is supposed to be better. I always preferred vinyl myself.

      I had to chuckle at your mention of Ikea. I love browsing there for small space ideas, but only have one item in my home from there. There is one more I have been thinking of purchasing. Its an all metal cabinet that would fit under my bathroom vanity. Most of the stuff I wouldn’t buy and the seating is all so low I wouldn’t consider it.

  4. Pingback: Heirlooms | Learning To Want Less

  5. This is a topic I’ve been avoiding thinking about because I’m not sure of how to deal with it when the time comes. You’ve inspired a blog post from me, which will mention this one. I hope you read and have advice for me! :-/

    • There are many kinds of heirlooms, but your grandmothers paintings are in a special category. That would be quite a heavy burden to carry if they were lost on your watch. Other than 2 items most of what was left to me were pieces of furniture. The end tables my grandmother bought when she briefly had a job, her sewing machine, and even her china. But only a painting and her engagement ring did I want to have. Good luck deciding how to handle the paintings should the time come you inherit them.

  6. I love your re-purposing — that’s what I’m working on as I go through our “collections” and try to find homes for everything. It takes some time, but I don’t want things ending up in the landfill.

    • Hoarder comes clean, I applaud you in your efforts to not just trash what you find you no longer want or need. When I got rid of my stuff I just wanted it gone. I sold only one thing the rest i gave away for free. I had a little trouble with it at first because insaw the money I spent on each, but in the end I wanted them to be used and that was the quickest way to go about being free.

  7. I have those two wooden candlesticks I think I told you of which I do hope are cherished as I have enjoyed them by my offspring at some point as they were my great-grans… other than that and a small ornament that I saved from my Dads home all the things I collected over the years are just THINGS..
    When I first got married we didnt have much money and I remember my Grandma gave me loads of Brasses… which each week or so I would loath the job of cleaning… But would polish them until the shone back to their brightest..

    Now I am all for a simple life.. and many of my ornaments are what others have bought me, or they are part of my crystal collection… If you ever have free time you can go to my crystal page and see the crystals on display in a slide show…. But we never really own anything do we… We leave it all behind… whether those receiving it want it or not…. We can not take it with us!… ;-)

    lovely Post Lois

    • Sue, I just took a peek at your crystals they are beautiful. I have one amethyst crystal that is in my front window right now, it gets moved around a lot. I do love your candlestick holders and hope someone does cherish them when you are gone.

      No we can’t take it with us which is why I don’t care to waste time and money buying and caring for much. Like you the simpler the better.

  8. I’ve found some wonderful things on the roadside and have also left things for others to take too. Once I saw a chest of drawers of mine go from one house to another several years apart, which was fun. Unfortunately, our council has made it illegal to take things off our annual roadside collection as they want to keep the metal to sell for scrap. Well Lois, I’m usually a very law abiding person, but I can’t bear to see useful things taken to the tip, so I , like many others, ignore this.

  9. As you know, I have been clearing out my house and the last thing I want is for my kid to feel any sense of obligation about my stuff. But that is not likely because Link is ruthless, LOL! I go to an annual yard sale which was last weekend – this year it was filled with dishes, glassware and ornaments. My mom commented, “People aren’t holding onto things like they used to.” There were even cross-stitch pictures and mugs that said MOM on them!

    • Dar, I hope you didn’t bring too many things home from the annual yard sale after all the hard work you have been doing around your home. I think its great people are being ruthless about getting the stuff they don’t need out of their home. I hope none of the stuff leftover was carried back in to clutter their homes back up or ended up in the trash.

  10. My son keeps a few pieces of his dads furniture as homage to him. His dad has been gone over 20 years. I finally convinced him to let go of his grandma’s coffee table to the thrift store since it just didn’t fit his style. Grandma will understand and not hold it against him. She’s been gone over 10 years. I sure don’t want them to hang on to my stuff when I’m gone. Pass it on to someone that wants it. Memories are in the heart, not in the stuff. I kept some things my mother made that are dear to me and I like. The rest must move on. I so agree with your take on it.

    • Marlene, that is the heart of it. We hold on to things because we know our loved ones cared so for it. You and I, we can’t take it with us, but we don’t want our children adding a sentimental attachment to something they don’t need or maybe even like just to care for our things.

      Since I loved, my home is mostly filled with items I found. My kids know I didn’t spend anything on it (maybe a little to repair it) so I hope they will just have a big yard sale and be done with it

  11. We have a lot of furniture that has been passed down to us – but we like it. Anything that we don’t, we’ve always sold or given away for free on Kijiji. Someone always wants what we don’t.

    • Heidi, there are a few things I do have that were passed down to me, but they are small things like a ding or my grandmothers blender which I like way more than the new stuff. Like you I didn’t have too much trouble getting rid of what I didn’t want.

    • That is so true, Live and Learn. While an item is still in useable condition I don’t want family to hold on to something just because they believe it had value to me if it doesn’t suit them. As for the money, there is all too often greed when someone passes that is so sad.

  12. It will be predictable that the second hand market will be booming over the next decade. There are second hand shops springing up in Colchester, these are useful to me as I tend to go for them over brand new goods. This will have a knock-on effect on the primary consumer market of new products, which is good in a way.

    • Alex, I’m glad you are already seeing more second hand shops popping up. With the reported decrease in value of antiques we should be able to find some nice things in our budgets. Like you, I shop the thrift shops first, and of course the curb.

  13. I have inherited the possessions of 4 relatives – our family is small and there aren’t enough people interested in sharing these items. I have gotten rid of a lot – some went to the dump, I fear, but many went to auction houses or to charity. So someone else is using them now. But still the volume is large and I have learned from this experience to shed what I don’t want or need rather than thinking my family will want it.

    • Elaine, I’m sorry you ended up with the responsibility for family possessions. I know it can be very hard to get rid of something a loved family member treasured so much especially if it ended up in the dump. I am happy to see you aren’t cluttering up your home with things you don’t want or nerd.

  14. The only issue with second hand goods is that what you want, when you want it, isn’t always possible. And we’re all so used to instant gratification now!

    It’s definitely true that the value of things drops so much once they are even lightly used. I’m pretty sure nothing I have would be of much emotional or financial value to pass on. Sure, my spawn (I don’t have any yet) may love items, but there’s only a handful of possessions I can imagine ever recouping a decent % of their initial value.

    • Sarah, you are so young that unless you seek out antiques or inherit some I’m not sure what is sold today will hold up long enough to be passed on that far in the future.

      you are so right about the instant gratification we are so used to today. I think that’s a sad commentary on these times.

  15. I have found over the years if I don’t like something I can’t live with it, no matter where it’s come from. I often think our kids will be mortified they will have to get of all our “treasures” – their tastes are very different to mine, I expect most will go to op shops and that’s ok, someone like me will love them :)

    • So true, my tastes and my children’s are very different. While I got rid of most everything I owned when I moved the rest can be donated or my children can have a yard sale if they want. The one thing I don’t want them to do is hold on to something just because they thought I was attached to it.

      I do believe many are going to be very disappointed at what little they receive for the items they try to sell.

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