May 1, 2012
Photography was a relatively new invention when Mary Baker Glover first had a photograph taken in about 1850. In less than 175 years, photography has gone from its earliest popular format – the daguerreotype, invented in France by Louis Daguerre in 1839 – to digital photography with our mobile phones.
In recognition of May as National Preservation Month, we are taking this opportunity to share information on how to identify and care for your family photographs. Knowing the process by which your photograph was produced can help you determine how to take care of it, and also how to identify the time period and the people in the photograph.
Left: Cabinet card photograph of George Glover II, George Glover III, and George Glover IV (Mary Baker Eddy’s son, grandson, and great grandson), ca 1915. Longyear Museum collection
Many families have nineteenth century, early process photographs in their collections, and this is where we will focus our comments. The following types are the most commonly found:
A positive image on a copper plate coated with silver. The daguerreotype must be held at an angle that does not reflect bright light in order to view the image. This was the first type of imaging process to become popular worldwide.
Right: Daguerreotype of unknown woman. Longyear Museum, Bagley family collection
A negative image on glass that appears positive when placed over a black background. These are similar in appearance to the daguerreotype, but the ambrotype does not need to be held at a particular angle to view the image.
Right: Ambrotype of the Alexander Tilton family (Mrs. Eddy's sister and family), ca 1860. Longyear Museum collection
Both of these styles of photography are unique objects, meaning they have no negative. Both are usually mounted in a case with a decorative cover. Deterioration can occur if moisture comes in contact with the image, or humidity is allowed to come between the case and the image. Store in a cool, dry place, ideally in archival quality boxes and/or envelopes. These images are very fragile, and should be left in their cases whenever possible, and not handled.
Left: Example of elaborate case cover for early process photographs. Longyear Museum, Bagley family collection
Similar to the ambrotype, this is a negative image that appears positive due to the black background material coated onto a thin sheet of varnished iron prior to the application of the emulsion. The name “tintype” is derived from the tin shears used to cut the image from a larger sheet. “Tintypes” are also known as ferrotypes or melainotypes. The tintype was a very popular form of photography during the American Civil War. Sometimes mounted in cases with covers or in albums with paper mats, tintypes were sturdy enough to be mailed to friends and family with or without paper mounts.
Left:Tintype of George Glover II (Mrs. Eddy's son), in his Civil War uniform, ca 1861. Longyear Museum collection
Right: Tintype of Mary Baker Eddy, ca 1856. Longyear Museum collection
Like a daguerreotype or an ambrotype, a tintype is unique, with no negative. Tintypes are more durable than those earlier processes, but can easily be bent or scratched. If cleaning is needed, they can be gently brushed with a soft brush. Again, store in a cool, dry place in an acid-free envelope. An acid-free mat board can be used to support a tintype if necessary.
Albumen silver print (1850s-1900s)
The albumen silver print was one of the first methods of producing a photographic print from a negative onto a paper base. A piece of paper was coated with an emulsion of egg white and salt and then dried, dipped into a solution of silver nitrate and water, rendering the surface sensitive to UV light. The dried paper was placed in a frame in direct contact with a negative and exposed to UV light, (the sun). A bath of sodium thiosulfate fixed the print’s exposure, preventing further darkening. Albumen prints were made on very thin paper which made the paper susceptible to tearing or curling. To solve this problem, Albumen prints were most often mounted on cards.
These albumen prints on cards often contain important information regarding the photographer, studio, address, and even awards won by the photographer. This was a way for the photographer to advertise his/her studio; but now it is a wonderful way to identify the location of where a photograph was taken, and possibly to date the photo. Also, because they were frequently given as keepsakes, people tended to write on the back of these photographs, which can help identify the subject. They are best stored in acid-free envelopes, in a cool, dry place. Card photographs can be found in a number of sizes:
Carte de Visite – 2 ½” x 4 ¼” [popular size designed to be used similarly to calling cards] Cabinet – 4 ½” x 6 ¼”
Victoria -- 3 ¼” x 5”
Promenade -- 4” x 7”,
Boudoir -- 5 ¼” x 8 ½”
Imperial -- 6 7/8” x 9 7/8”
Panel -- 8 ¼” x 4”
Above, left: Cabinet card photograph of Thomas Hatten, C.S.D., ca 1890. Longyear Museum collection
Above, right: Reverse side of the cabinet card showing the photographer's advertisting. Longyear Museum collection
Another format developed during this time was the stereograph, made to be viewed in a stereoscope. These were an inexpensive and very popular way to experience scenes of faraway places, natural wonders, notable events, and even pets! Stereographs were formed by using two images placed side by side, and were produced with a camera with two lenses about 2 ½” apart. These photographs were mounted on a card, which could be slipped into a stereoscope to obtain a three dimensional image.
Since these cards were fabricated slightly curved they should be stored vertically to keep their intended shape, in acid-free envelopes in a cool, dry place.
Below: Stereograph of dogs. Longyear Museum, Bagley family collection
• Do not use tape to repair tears on photographs. Tears are best left un-mended. Package the torn photograph in a clear polyethylene envelope or sleeve to prevent further damage.
Making notations on photos?
• Do not use ink pens to write on the backs of photographs. Use a #2 pencil on the backs of photos to identify family members, locations, etc., but be careful not to exert too much pressure when writing.
• Do not store photographs in albums that use adhesives to keep the picture in place. Never use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic pages or “magnetic” photo albums. These actually hold the photos in place with either static or an adhesive that is damaging. Archival-quality polyethylene enclosures are available, which allow for clear viewing without handling the actual photo.
• Another method is storage in acid-free paper boxes with acid -free paper dividers. This method allows more images to be stored in a smaller space, but is not as convenient for viewing.
• Conservation suppliers offer both polyester pages with pockets for photos and polyester and paper photo corners that can be used to mount photos on neutral pH album pages.
Best storage locations?
• Do not store photographs, negatives, or slides in the basement or the attic, but in rooms that are temperature controlled, where they will not experience dramatic shifts in temperature and humidity. Buckling, cracking, and color fading or shifting are sure signs that storage conditions are not ideal. Dark, dry, cool conditions are best for preserving all photographic formats.
Exposure to light?
• Do not allow photographs to experience prolonged exposure to sunlight or high levels of UltraViolet light, which causes damage to the chemical composition of photographs, resulting in fading and deterioration. Actually, with much of our household lighting now containing high levels of the ultra-violet spectrum, photographs and papers should be protected from all forms of light. Color photographs are especially vulnerable to deterioration. When displaying photos, use UV-filtering glass or Plexiglas.
What if photos need cleaning?
• Do not attempt to clean photographs, as you may inadvertently damage them. Most "dirt" that appears on photographs is not threatening to the survival of the image. A professional conservator can assess whether a photograph is in jeopardy and can suggest a course of treatment.
Early photos: special considerations?
• Do not display original nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs if you want to keep them for the long term. Have a conservator assess whether you can have a copy made for display. Consider having digital copies made of your especially sensitive or fragile photographs.
Any paper or plastic product that has a neutral pH (about 8.5), and is considered safe for archival use.
Actions taken toward the long-term preservation of an object. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventative care, supported by research and education.
A professional who works on the conservation of objects. Their work involves determining the structural stability of an object, addressing problems of chemical and physical deterioration, and performing corrective treatment based on an evaluation of the aesthetic, historic, and scientific characteristics of the object. If your photograph requires special attention or you are unsure about how to protect it, you should contact a conservator. To search for a conservator near you, go to The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works at www.conservation-us.org or contact them at
The American Institute for Conservation
of Historic & Artistic Works
1156 15th Street NW, Ste. 320
Washington, DC 20005
The chemical coating on film and photographic paper that is light sensitive. Without the emulsion, the photographic image would not be possible.
Inert plastics that are available in numerous formats for storage of photographic prints, negatives, and slides.
The protection of an object through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage, and that prevent loss of informational content. The primary goal of preservation is to prolong the life of an object.
Treatment procedures intended to return an object to a known or assumed state, often through the addition of non-original material.
A conservation treatment that attempts to maintain the integrity of an object and to minimize deterioration.
Reilly, James M. Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints. Rochester: Kodak Publication No. G-2S. 1986. Reilly highlights how to identify your early family photographs. He also goes into great detail explaining early photographic processes.
This article was prepared by Leslie Vollnogle, Collections Manager at Longyear Museum
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