How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions
by Don Williams, Senior Conservator Smithsonian Institution and Louisa Jagger
a book review
As Don Williams humorously writes in his introduction:
“Saving Stuff” is about preserving and maintaining “the museum of you”. This museum is made up of the objects that have special value for you. I can’t stop an earthquake, flood, or alien invasion, but I can share how to prevent most homegrown catastrophes as well as how to go about saving stuff: comic books, wedding dresses, baseball cards, furniture, stamps, papers, film, pictures, records, DVDs, CDs, doll houses, flags, and weird and wacky things like Cousin Cecil’s African water buffalo head or your private collection of sheep’s eyeballs kept by your grandfather in mayonnaise jars. In this book I will show you how to save almost anything you want.”
At the time of publication, the author was the Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian Institution. His years of experience in the conservation and preservation of objects, mark him as an expert in his field.
His writing collaborator, Louisa Jagger, is a “saver of stuff” and the stories she shares revolve around common mistakes she has made in caring for her own collectibles, mistakes she hopes she can help the reader avoid.
According to the author, this book is not meant to be read from cover to cover. It is important to read through Chapters 1 and 2. There the reader will find basic important information about how to care for objects in general.
The following 13 chapters consist of in-depth discussions covering a particular category of collectible as well as how to care for and preserve each object. Since each type of collectible has its own section within the category chapter, the reader can turn to the chapter to find the information he or she is most interested in without having to read through the entire book.
Williams includes a Risk Chart for Collectibles at the end of Chapter 1. Each category of collectible — paper, glass and ceramics, wood and baskets, textiles, metals, photos, paintings, watercolors, pastels, plastics — is listed and across the page are the risks for damage from which the object would be most in danger. The risks, depending on the object, include light, insects and mold, handling and misuse, contaminants, normal use, temperature and moisture.
He also includes puppies and kittens (and children) who “…inflict 90 percent of the damage on collectibles as compared to grown-up pets. As a note of encouragement, pet’s manners often improve with age. Kid’s manners do, too.”
Included in these two chapters are ideas on how to decide what you would like to save.
Williams says, “People save stuff for sentimental as well as for financial reasons. Deciding what is a collectible is all about what is important to you.”
Unless you have unlimited space and resources, you can’t save everything, and so most people are forced to make choices. Once choices are made, don’t feel guilty, because it is okay to sell, give or throw stuff away.
The author stresses the importance of prioritizing to compile a list of objects. Two worksheets for this purpose are included at the end of Chapter 2. On Worksheet 1: Why It Is Important to You and on Worksheet 2: Everything You Know.
Completing Worksheet 2 is vital because it asks the questions who, what, when, and where.
Who owned it? Who made it? How did you acquire it? Do you plan to leave it to someone?
What is its value? What did you pay for it and do you have the original bill of sale? What is it made of? What is its condition?
When was the object made and when did you or your family acquire it?
Where did it come from and are there marks to give you clues to its origin or maker?
A list like this would also provide valuable information to family heirs, to appraisers for purposes of valuation, and to insurance adjusters in the event of damage or loss due to earthquake, fire or flood.
Interwoven throughout the chapters are Don’s Tips, where the author shares his vast experience and knowledge of preservation and includes “everything from debunking old wives’ tales to novel uses of everyday materials around the house.” From never wrap your silver in Saran Wrap to never use furniture polish, as well as an interesting comment on the “mythology of cedar chests”, are among the many useful nuggets of information.
He advises when it is necessary to get a second opinion. Williams states: “If you are faced with the unenviable task of sorting through a garage, attic or basement filled with family stuff, you might be wise to have an appraiser take a quick walk-through with you to advise you on what to keep and what is really ready for the dumpster.”
The final section of the book is entitled Resources and contains a complete A to Z list of what the author describes as Your Saving Stuff Tool Kit. Everything anyone would need to maintain and safely keep every kind of collectible is briefly and clearly described. A list of suppliers where all of these tools can be found is also included.
Saving Stuff, as stated on the back cover of this comprehensive guide, “is for both the serious collector and the sometimes sentimentalist. With step-by-step instructions, detailed illustrations, tips for making the things you use every day last, and stories about how the Smithsonian takes care of our national treasures, Saving Stuff is the only book you need to take care of the stuff you love.”
Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions
Don Williams and Louisa Jagger, Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster. New York, 2005, 365 pages, ISBN 9780743264167
Downsizing the Family Home. What to Save, What to Let Go
Marni Jameson, Sterling Publishers. 2016
Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home
Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand, Downsizing the Home Press. 2004, Kindle Edition. 2013
Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life
Peter Walsh, Rodale Books. 2017
Downsizing the Family Home: What To Do With All the Stuff
Interview with Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand for Next Avenue by Jill Yanish, Forbes Magazine. March 27, 2014
Don Williams retired from the Smithsonian in December of 2012 after 30 years as Senior Furniture Conservator. He purchased a large barn in Illinois, dismantled it and re-assembled it in the rural Virginia mountains. He now resides at the Barn on White Run where he offers classes and workshops. He writes articles and books, researches historical craft and artifacts, and constructs and conserves furniture and decorative arts. He also makes and sells tools and supplies for restoration, conservation and construction.