January 12, 2011

How to Preserve Old Photographs

My Grandma and Grandpa on their Honeymoon in 1948.

It's a snow day here and everyone is snowed in. I thought it would be the perfect day to sort through and label all of those family photos that have been collecting over the years. Although I am very strict on how I keep my photos, my family has a notoriously bad system of keeping their photographs.  

My grandma gave me the photo at the left yesterday. My grandmother and my grandfather went on their honeymoon in Miami. My grandmother said that they had to take the bus all the way down because the trains were full of soldiers and that they still couldn't get meat. She got sun poisoning and was subsequently very sick. Her photos are really cool but are seriously degrading because of the photo books she has them in. The albums that were popular at the time were made with paper that contains acid which helps break down photographs.     

 Before you can preserve a photograph, you need to identify what kind of photo you have.

Types of Photographs

·         Daguerreotypes  (1840s-1860s) These photos are really fragile and most were placed in glass frame cases to protect the image. The image is printed on polished silver. These have a shiny , mirror-like quality to them. These are normally reversed images due to the photographic process used to make them. 
·         Ambrotypes (1854- 1880s) The picture is a negative image printed on glass and is backed with black paint, paper, or cloth to make the image appear as a positive. 

·         Tin Types (1850s)  Image is printed on an iron plate. 

·         Carte De Visite (CDV) (1860-1870s) The image is printed on paper and glued to a heavy card, frequently including studio information on the front or back of the card. These pictures are normally 2 ½ x 4 inches.  These were printed in sets of 8 and were given to friends and family.   
·         Cabinet Cards (1870s- 1900s)These photos look like CDV’s but in a larger size, 4 x 6 inches and were glued to heavier card stock.  

My Great, great Grandfather, Paul.

·         Gelatin (1890s-1960s) These images are glossy images printed on card-stock. The images are in true black and white.
This is my another picture of my Grandma. The original photo is in clean black and white, it looks brown because of the lighting.
·         Resin (1970s photos) These normally have a brownish tint.

How to Clean Photographs:

Daguerreotypes: Daguerreotypes normally have tape around the edges to prevent the image from tarnishing. To clean Daguerreotypes, you need to remove them from the glass or case while wearing gloves. Put the image in a safe location and clean the glass with distilled water, diluted dish soap and cotton swabs. Make sure the case is completely dry before replacing the image. The image is far too easy to scrape off if you clean the image, but due to the tape around it, the dirt is normally just on the glass anyway. 

Ambrotypes: If the image is sandwiched between two glass plates, the glass can be cleaned carefully using cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol. Make sure that you only touch glass and never touch the image or blackening. If the ambrotype only has one plate of glass, do not attempt to clean it, it is too easy to accidentally chip the black paint or image. Never try to open a sandwiched ambrotype. 

Tin Types: Tintypes are normally in cases and can be scratched easily.  Only hold the tin type by the edges and clean with compressed air. 

Carte De Visite: Cartes De Visite should only be cleaned with a soft brush or canned air.

 Cabinet Cards: Cabinet Cards should only be cleaned with a soft brush and canned air.

All later photographs: Modern  photographs should be cleaned with canned air, soft brush and lint-free cloths.  

How to Store Photographs
After cleaning, Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes and Tin Types should be stored in archival paper envelopes which can be made cheaply and easily using acid free computer paper. Make sure that after you make the envelope, you remove the photo, write the photograph information on the envelope then replace the photo and seal the envelope with a little bit of tape. Many people suggest that you store These types of photographs upright but it isn’t really practical unless you have a large number of them. Place your envelopes in a box, labeled with the photos contained therein. Store in a drawer or closet where they can be protected from temperature fluctuations, dampness and light.  

Cartes De Visite, Cabinet Cards, and modern photographs should be stored in acid-free albums (modern scrapbooks are normally good). Use photo corners to attach the photos to the page and be sure to write the photograph information on the paper to avoid having to remove and replace photos unnecessarily.


The Do’s and Don’ts of Photograph Preservation

-Don’t keep photos in contact paper books, the glue ages and browns and also ruins your photos.
-Don’t fold, tape, rubber band or paperclip photos. Tape eventually browns over time and will eventually hurt your pictures. Today, we can digitally reassemble a torn photo.
-Don’t glue photos into photo albums or they will likely be damaged when removed in the future.
-Always write the name or names of the people in the photos, the year and the location with a photo safe marker or lightly with a pencil. Regular pen ink deteriorates and can harm your photo.  (Really, do this. In a few years you might not remember as well as you think you will. It will also help your great grandkids in the future; it’s horrible to have a box of photos of unidentified people.)
-Always keep photos in temperature controlled areas (closets are good,) the extreme temperatures in attics will damage photos.
-Always use an archival scrapbook (the ones currently sold in craft stores are archival and contain no acids) and photo corners. Most older albums are actually bad for your photos.  
-Always hold photos by the edges, don’t touch the image.
-If you can, wear cotton gloves when touching photos.
-Make a copy, store the original.  If you display a photo, the light will eventually fade it, always make a copy and store the original safely.  Physical and digital copies of your photos also back up your photos if the original ever gets destroyed.

This photo of my grandmother was damaged in a house fire.
Torn photo as a result of being glued into a book.
Making copies is very important. If you display a photo, the light will eventually fade it, always make a copy to display and store the original safely. Physical and digital copies of your photos also back up your photos if the original ever gets destroyed. 

A lot of people don’t like to display copies because they think that they lack the charm of the original. Photocopying and art techniques can create an image that is practically indiscernible from the original and also preserves the original.      
This CDV is not only a copy but completely fake. It was made completely with modern photographing techniques and art. We keep this photo around as an example of what can be done to copies to try and preserve the charm of the original. Always make sure to write on the back of copies that they are not the original so you don't confuse future generations. Remember a lot of museums make similar replicas of their sensitive artifacts so the originals can be preserved for the future. You can even tell people that they are replicas--they will probably be really surprised.      

Phew! That was a lot!


  1. Thank you for posting about this, Stephanie - it couldn't have come at a better time as we have recently been going through old family photos and wondering how we can preserve them better. This is very interesting and helpful! :)

    God bless

  2. Rachel Beth, thanks so much. It's great that you are going through your old photos, most people put it off until they are ruined. You'll have to do a post on the interesting ones. :D

  3. Thank you so much for this - it's very helpful! It turns out the local stationery shop only has the self-sticking (contact paper?) albums. But the shopkeeper lady was surprised herself and promised to order the albums for photo-corners again. :-)
    But I'd like to ask - how about gluing the photo corners into the album? Would the glue be safe this way? The photo corners we have at home are really old and not sticky anymore...

  4. Hana, it still risks ripping the photo if another family member wants it in the future. I can show you a picture of my dad's old contact paper album--It has permanently damaged the photos as the glue on the pages has turned brown and stuck to the photos. It is about 30 years old. There are tutorials out there that will show you how to make pretty and inexpensive photo corners :


  5. Thank you for the link. But I'm not sure you understood my question... I was merely worried about gluing photo corners - bought or handmade, whatever - into the regular (NOT contact paper) album.
    Because I also saw photos stored in an album with thicker sheets by simply cutting "photo corners" in the album itself. (Two diagonal slits on each corner, the photo put through them.)

  6. Sorry, I did misunderstand. Gluing them would be fine as long as the glue is not in contact with the paper. If you want to be really safe though, you can use rice glue which is very stable and won't deteriorate much over time and is water soluble if someone ever needed to remove it.

    Rice glue was popular in the 1800s for paper-craft projects which has helped preserve them today. It was and still is also used to make those beautiful hair ornaments that Geisha and Geiko in Japan wear.


    Regular glue really wont hurt, just make sure it doesn't touch the picture. If you want to be sure that it lasts a really long time, the rice glue is the best thing.

  7. Rice glue sounds fantastic! Thank you for the link!
    And, again, for the previous one. I think for my Cartes de Visite (is that the proper plural of it?) I'd have to make my own photo corners, because the pre-made ones probably won't be able to hold that thick cardboard the photos are glued on.

  8. Hi Stephanie
    Just wanted to let you know I decided to take up your suggestion of a blog post on old family photos. :)
    God bless

  9. Great Rachel! I can't wait to see it.

  10. Very good info but might I add not to remove dag's from their cases? When you break the seal and allow oxygen into them you begin to get the green and blue and fading look too them. restoration is very expensive. We get ours done here finedags.com. Also check out gaylord for photo storage. My husband and I collect photos and are always trying to learn more about preservation!

    1. That's a very good point! I do not have many so I didn't think to mention it.

  11. Thank you for these instructions. I was wondering about the old book you have at the bottom...do you leave your cartes in them? I have one in good shape and one in terrible shape. Wondering if I should just put sheets between the little album pages or if I should completely take them out of the book.

    1. I keep them in the book. If it's in bad shape, I would make a copy than wrap the original in archival paper (like a present) and store it flat.

  12. By “soft brush” do you mean something like a soft toothbrush? I am trying to clean (as best I can) a few cabinet cards. Thanks!

  13. By “soft brush” do you mean something like a soft toothbrush? I am trying to clean (as best I can) a few cabinet cards. Thanks!


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