Old photos are wonderful, exciting glimpses into the past and our history. However, an
important part of the story is often overlooked: the negative. The early photographs were daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tin types which were photographic positives, meaning they were one of a kind. Without a negative, copies could not be made. Another original had to be taken. Other processes were tried but not commercially viable. Glass plate negatives were being used by the late 1850’s but the
process was hard to master, expensive, difficult to use and required the handling of
dangerous chemicals. Photography was essentially the domain of professionals. Along came George Eastman, inventor and entrepreneur. In 1888, he developed (pun
intended) the Kodak Box Camera. It came loaded with a roll of film that would take 100 2.5-inch round photos. A box camera user would shoot all the pictures and return
the camera to Kodak for processing. Kodak would replace the film and return the camera ready to shoot another 100 images. Kodak would then print out the pictures and return them. While this is considered the first roll film, it was, in reality, a negative on a paper backing that had to be transferred during processing. In 1889 Eastman started using a celluloid nitrate plastic base for roll films. This became what is now recognized as roll film.
Kodak’s use of roll film enabled rapid introduction and improvements in camera and film
technology, as well as wonderful, creative advertising, “You push the button we do the rest”
These advertisements were aimed at children and mothers to help photography appeal to the
masses. Early photo negatives were contact printed, meaning the negative was placed on
the photographic paper and exposed with a light source. My first part time high school job was at a photo lab contact printing Christmas cards. Developed in a darkroom under red safe
lights, each card was individually contact printed then hand processed in chemicals, shuffling
them and timing them to keep all at a consistent exposure. This was very tedious work. Because it was contact printed, the photograph size was determined by the size of the negative. Kodak had many negative sizes or formats. From the early 1900’s through the mid to late forties the most popular were the 116/616, the 120/620, and the 127. In 1903 Kodak came out with the 122 format. At 3.5×5.5 inches it was designed to fit the RCCPs (Real Photo Post Cards), not to be confused with the popular, commercially printed lithographic or offset printing mass produced post cards. While post card collecting has always been a popular hobby, it’s only been somewhat recently RCCPs have become collectable for their uniqueness. These are actual photographs individually printed to photographic paper rather than copies of a photograph reprinted mechanically. An individual could take film to be developed and have one or more copies made, put a stamp on it and send to friends and relatives. Vacations, weddings, local town, and home pictures could be sent to people for a little more than the price of a stamp! RCCPs provide a priceless glimpse into the past. Not Ebay priceless, but historically and genealogically priceless.And that brings us back to the importance of the negatives. Most of the early negatives were single cut for the convenience of contact printing, to be returned in a paper packet with one side for the photos and the other side for the negatives. Reprints were available; however, out of a roll of 8, 12 or 16 negatives only two or three would ever be sent back for reprints. And usually if reprints weren’t made in a reasonably short time, the packet of negatives would be stored in the old shoe box where many are still today! I recently came across almost two hundred old black and white negatives belonging to my mother in law. Yes, in old boxes along with photos and letters. When I posted them on FB for friends and relatives, they were thrilled. The negatives were from the early teens to the early to mid-forties. Many of the negatives had been in the packets for 70 to 90 years or more! Most had not been reprinted or seen before.
Dig out those old negatives! Examine them. Separate the negatives from the photos. Early nitrate negatives give off nitrate gas which can damage photos and can be highly combustible and flammable. Nitrate cellulose negatives were still being made until 1950, so there is a good chance some of your old odd size negatives are nitrate. Digitize the negatives and store them individually. Also be aware that negatives will easily scratch. Rubbing together is a major cause of scratching. I usually store the larger sizes in cabinet card archival sleeves. RPPCs should also be stored in archival sleeves. Keep in mind the RCCP’s are printed like a real photo and their emulsions are easy to damage. Proper storage also makes viewing much more enjoyable! Get your history out of your shoe boxes!
1. Kodak’s first photos were circular
and mounted on cardboard.
2. RPPC (Real Photo Post Card)
3. Scratches from negatives