From Medals to Movies; From Letters to Photos to Jewellery…


A few years ago my siblings and I inherited a huge collection of boxes and trunks belonging to our parents. These also included, as we were soon to discover, items passed down from their parents, as well. Each container was full of treasures and, soon, we were leafing through family bibles, sorting through a hundred years worth of photos, untangling medals and service pins, and trying to identify odd pieces of obsolete technology.

Once the final tub had been inspected, we sat back and looked at each other. I can’t remember who spoke first but it was soon apparent we had no idea where to start, or how to go about the huge task of sorting, apportioning, and / or throwing away the family history spread out before of us. In fact, we were so overwhelmed by it all we simply boxed everything back up and packed it away, out of sight, in my attic, where it’s remained for the last five years.

And, I suspect, it would have stayed there indefinitely – well, probably forever – gathering cobwebs if I hadn’t discovered something at our local library: A two volume set entitled Help! I’ve Inherited an Attic Full of History by Althea Douglas. If anyone reading this post ever finds themselves in this same position, needing to sort through someone’s lifetime accumulation of personal possessions, these books are absolutely the first stop to make before tackling the job.

Douglas starts at the very beginning of the process with ideas on how to split the job between family members; how to assess what you’ve just unpacked and then how to evaluate it all. She explains how to determine historical value and where to look to establish a monetary value for collections and collectibles. She provides guidelines for giving items away to archives, historical societies, and libraries but, also reminds us that, sometimes, an item’s value lies more in its sentimental worth to the family. Douglas includes a Chronology for technology that covers cameras, sewing machines, calculators and computers, film, video, and sound equipment. There’s also a Glossary, and a Bibliography along with Notes, and Sources. And, that’s just Volume I. Volume II is all about how to care for, and preserve the things you’ve decided to keep, and contains just as much essential reference material as the first book.

Attic spider webs

The first thing I learned was that my attic was the wrong place to store our collection of memorabilia. In fact, these kinds of materials require dry conditions with a constant temperature, which means unheated garages and barns, and cold, damp basements are out of the question, too. So, number one on the agenda, now, is to haul out the almost two dozen boxes tucked away in the crawl space upstairs. Number two, is to call my siblings. Or should it be the other way around?

Help! I’ve Inherited an Attic Full of History, Volume 1: Dating, evaluating and disposing of the accumulation of a lifetime.  Althea Douglas, M.A., D.G.(C) Published in Toronto by The Ontario Genealogical Society, 1998. 92 pp

Help! I’ve Inherited an Attic Full of History, Volume II: Archival conservation in the home environment.  Althea Douglas, M.A., D.G.(C) Published in Toronto by The Ontario Genealogical Society, 1999. 94 pp

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