Today's Busy Families Pass on the Family Heirlooms

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, December 27, 2008

When people decide it's time to downsize and move out of the home where they have lived for perhaps 40 years, they want to distribute their household furniture, cherished belongings and family heirlooms to their adult children and grandchildren.

But more often than not, their offspring say no thanks, according to senior moving managers who help older parents move into assisted living facilities and estate appraisers who help the families sell the unwanted goods.

This can be painful for the aging parents, especially when the unwanted items include family treasures that have been handed down through the generations, such as sterling silver serving pieces that belonged to their own grandparents and table linens brought to America by a great-great-grandmother 140 years ago as part of her bridal trousseau. These relics are a part of the family history and a living tradition that the parents had expected to go on long after they left the scene.

A disinclination to take everything that a parent offers from the family homestead is not a new phenomenon, said Jack Larkin, the chief historian of Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass. There has always been tension between generations over taste and style. A century ago an adult child may have taken her mother's china but passed on her dresser, just as a daughter might do now.

But, Larkin acknowledged, the tension between the generations over what to keep and what to give away is greater now because of the change in American households over the last five decades as women entered the workforce and extended their concerns beyond the domestic sphere. Although historically women have been the custodians of family tradition and family lore, many may decide they don't want to carry forward every tradition of their mothers and grandmothers.

At the same time, Larkin added, men are becoming more involved in household matters and child rearing and sons may carry on some of the traditions that daughters have eschewed.

Looking at these changes through the prism of home furnishings, Larkin mused, "Will houses continue to have china closets and a breakfront to display china in the dining room?"

The children may keep these furniture pieces, but, judging by what families elect to sell, their contents will be very different, said Stephanie Kenyon, president of Sloans & Kenyon, a Chevy Chase appraisal and auction firm.

She has found that younger generations live informally and have little interest in maintaining the lifestyle of their parents, especially the way they entertained. Whether it's a modest estate with a pair of sterling silver candlesticks, sterling flatware and a set of fine porcelain dessert plates decorated with tiny rosebuds, or a much larger estate with enough china, silverware, wine and water goblets to host a sit-down dinner for 20 people, the heirs don't want it.

The reason offspring give most often for selling off the contents of their parents' china closet is the maintenance required, Kenyon said. The silverware that every bride wanted 50 years ago needs regular polishing, the fine porcelain china must be hand-washed and the damask table linens require ironing as well as careful laundering. The pace of life was slower then. Today's families want dishes that can go into the dishwasher and microwave, and stainless steel flatware that won't tarnish.

Passing on the silverware because it is too much work is somewhat ironic from a historical perspective, said Dean Zimmerman, director of the Western Reserve Historical Society's History Museum in Cleveland. For the mothers and grandmothers who were brides before World War II, silverware was the low-maintenance option compared to the far cheaper steel cutlery that was common then -- it would corrode and rust if you didn't wash and dry it carefully immediately after each use, he said.

In addition to the maintenance issue, younger adults in their 20s and 30s take a pass on their parents' and grandparents' things because they have a very different sense of history, Kenyon said.

School curriculums have a broader focus with more emphasis on America's diversity and far less on specific historical periods. Even kids who have grown up in the D.C. area and visited Mount Vernon and other historical houses multiple times will say of old things, "So what if George Washington's generation used it? So what if it was used in the 1890s?"

This group is equally disinterested in how these old things were made, Kenyon noted, but many, especially old silver pieces, have an interesting back story.

For example, some estates today have one or two "coin silver" serving spoons, so named because 200 to 250 years ago a person needing a teapot or serving implement would bring a bag of coins to a silversmith and ask him to make the piece. You can still see hand-hammered texture on the backs of the spoons and chisel marks inside these teapots, Kenyon said.

When heirs decide on bigger furniture pieces, even the china closets and breakfronts often get sold because current decorating trends favor clean lines and a spare look, Kenyon said. A family's older, carved pieces look fussy and they're usually dark with age. Refinishing often reveals a beautiful wood grain that was hidden under layers of varnish, yet the families are not interested. They want to buy new pieces, but, she pointed out, they won't be better in terms of quality. Ordinary, mass-produced furniture pieces made before 1970 have stronger frames with better glues and finishes compared with what has been manufactured since.

Kenyon has observed that while individual families are selling many if not most of the household items they inherit, the general public's growing interest in "renewing, reusing and recycling" has motivated many younger people just out of college to buy previously owned goods at estate tag sales and her firm's consignment shop.

Kenyon also noted that heirs who are eager to sell an estate are unrealistic about its value. Watching television shows such as "Antiques Roadshow," they become convinced they are "sitting on a gold mine," but it's rare to find anything in an estate that is truly museum quality, she said. Most estates will have a few vintage collectibles that are worth "in the low hundreds, not the high thousands." For example, a set of four funky 1950s bar stools that people often had in their basement rec rooms in good condition might be worth $300, not $3,000.

Melanie Diana, an estate appraiser in Ann Arbor, Mich., said that heirs are also misled by the prices listed in the antique guidebooks written by antique dealers. Today the true value is the price on eBay. The dealers' book might value a green Depression glass plate at $35, but the eBay price is closer to $5.

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site,

© 2008, Katherine Salant

© 2008 The Washington Post Company