Heirloom or Inheritance – Thursday Thoughts

Photograph of antique ink compasses, accompanying the historytracings blog post ““Heirloom or Inheritance - Thursday Thoughts” from historytrace. Image copyright: www.freeimages.com / Aldo Cavini Benedetti (aldoaldoz).Have you inherited something meaningful which embodies a deep connection you had with the person who bequeathed it to you? Or perhaps your inheritance has monetary value more than personal. Are you the custodian of heirlooms which have been passed down within your family over generations and whose provenance is well charted and future already assigned?

How you describe inherited items and what they mean to you depends very much on the circumstances and way in which their ownership was passed to you, on a legal or informal footing.

The word “inheritance” is a fairly neutral term describing something that is inherited such as an heirloom.

The term “heirloom” tends to describe an object which has been in a family for generations, usually a valuable object that has been passed from one generation to another imbued with a sense of long-term family value. Under property law, an heirloom is a chattel or movable personal property inherited by special custom or in accordance with the terms of a will. The etymology of the word heirloom predates the year 900 and derives from the Middle English words heir and lome, from the Old English gelōma meaning tool or implement. This may point to the fact that in feudal England a tool or implement was a category of property which, at a basic level most males, even serfs, could own since they had rights to some personal possessions and could therefore bequeath upon their death.

In the English language there are also other words we regularly use to describe possessions which have been bequeathed in a will and the transfer of their ownership following a person’s death: heritance, heritage, bequest, estate, legacy, patrimony, birthright, primogeniture, words which originate from Middle and Old English, Medieval Latin and French.

My ponderings about the two terms: heirloom and inheritance, and their usage arose recently whilst thinking about a family possession of a friend. The item is a finely made medium-sized wooden box inlaid with the former owner’s initials containing a set of antique ink compasses and precision drawing instruments. This inheritance is on its way to becoming an heirloom, for it has been passed down within the family between two generations already. Meanwhile it embodies the literal meaning of the term heirloom, in that it is precisely that, a set of tools.

The personal significance and value of inherited items can vary greatly between the benefactor and the recipient. Sometimes obvious from the object in question and its monetary value but also from the manner or spirit in which the item was given and received.

Taking this set of drawing and measuring tools as a case in point, the gift represented a fairly expensive set of tools of the trade used daily by the person who bequeathed them. At the time of the bequest some of the set still had a functional value for the recipient who also worked in a profession handling tools of this kind daily. But rapidly the tools became superseded by modern replacements and eventually digital tools. Thus the bequest became obsolete, an antique with little practical use only sentimental value for the new owner.

There are so many examples of items, possessions and property which can be bequeathed. Some have significant monetary value or simply sentimental significance for each party. They may be heirlooms which have already been handed down within a family for generations, or long thought about gifts, or just items you end up with because no one else will have them. But often once you get past the mixed feelings about the potential value of your inheritance, there is a visible significance beyond the monetary or re-sale value of inherited possessions.

Inherited items may represent something bigger, something unique about the former life of the benefactor or the relationship they had with the recipient. Sometimes these details form the story of those objects which is also passed down with the item. All too often however there is a blank and we are left guessing as to the precise details of that significance.

It would have been so nice to know why Mr and Mrs T thought I’d like that miniature cup and saucer advertising Torquay, it might have spared it from the charity shop after it had gathered dust on my shelf for a decade. Perhaps I should think more carefully about what bequests I would leave, to whom and why, even write down their significance so the recipient can know what those items meant to me and what meaning I want to convey with them. Then they might treasure what they are encumbered with rather than wish they could dispose of it before I turn in my grave.

It’s just a shame my keyboard won’t last out the year, let alone my lifetime, it’d tell a few tales of its own if it could…

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 12/06/2016

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You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Heirloom or Inheritance – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Aldo Cavini Benedetti (aldoaldoz).

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