Heirlooms: Down through generations

Paul Epp

Heirlooms. Now that’s a word that isn’t used very often anymore, unless we’re talking about tomatoes. The whole idea of valuable objects being passed along through the generations has pretty much passed away.

When some of our most precious things have an effective lifespan that’s measured in months, the very notion seems a bit quaint.

It would seem that the term would have originated when weaving looms were a very valuable family asset, which would be passed on to a specific family heir and treasured or at least productively used. The underlying principle was important enough to the cottage industry of a national economy to become codified in law. Looms could not be allowed into the wrong hands.

With time, the concept of certain goods being valuable enough to a family to be treasured by it and carefully passed along was applied to other objects. These were items of furniture, or jewelry, books, art or even clothing. Their value was generally utilitarian but also symbolic. They represented significant expenditures and often class distinction or at least aspirations. It made a generation proud to be able to pass along valuable items that would give their children a claim to ‘good’ goods and maybe a leg-up the social and material ladder.


Meaning beyond material

Sometimes the value was more sentimental. An example of this is the watch that my grandfather wore, that my cousin now wears with great affection. He will likely want to leave it to one of his sons. But his sons never knew their great-grandfather, so the sentimental attachment will no longer be there and the watch will most likely be lost in a drawer full of other unappreciated items.

Some categories of objects have persisted. Grandfather clocks are one. At one time, a floor-mounted clock was a distinctive and valuable investment. They endure. But they rarely work. The locks are lost and the joints gape. They were not built to withstand our centrally heated homes and they have suffered. And now we are not short of the means to know the time. But who will throw one out, or even sell it for the pittance that would prevail? It’s a bit like the old family Bible. They endure, but perhaps a bit reluctantly.

Items used in childhood, like cradles, or rocking-horses, have a good record of collecting sentimental associations over successive generations, but their potential for a practical integration into our condo-sized urban lives is limited.


Next-generation appreciation

Marketers still sometimes take a shot at this. Expensive wristwatches are an example. They may hold their value?

Who knows? Young people are not so accustomed to wearing watches of any kind on their wrists and so their appreciation strikes me as less then certain. Pocket watches were once heirlooms, which may be worth keeping in mind.

It must be hard for senior family members who have bought expensive (and valuable) things with the anticipation that their children would appreciate them. The cherry-wood dining set, perhaps. Only to see their children make excuses to avoid shouldering that particular responsibility. But maybe there is a silver lining to this cloud. Where would the antique shops get their goods, otherwise?


Design beyond time

There aren’t a lot of heirlooms in my family, a family of refugees basically, who established themselves in Depression era Canada. Although I’ve sometimes regretted that, I sometimes feel a bit badly for the material burden I expect to bequeath to my own children. I’ve hand-made a lot of furniture, carefully, from nice wood, and they will be reluctant to dispose of it. Perhaps even when they should.

1894 Winchester carbineThe only thing I wanted of my father’s was his model 1894 Winchester saddle carbine. It was a lovely object, but not really that useful as a gun, and someone else got it ahead of me. It’s just as well. I certainly don’t need a rifle in my urbanized and nomadic life. But as a designer, this question sticks with me.

What can we design that will have enduring value? That will be worth the categorization of ‘heirloom’? It’s a good question for which I’m still searching for the good answer.

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.


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