Cleaning Old Family Photographs: Part 2

Part 1

So many family photos are just lying in boxes, plastic containers and stuck in albums. Stored in attics, basements and sometimes in garages! Determining what you have will determine how to clean, if possible or advisable. Also storing methods can differ depending on the type of images.

More articles by Bob Walden

Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes are a category in themselves. My advice, gently wipe off dust with a dry non-static cloth. Place in a prominent place in your home. Lightly dust occasionally. That’s it IMO.

daguerreotypes ambrotypes and tintypes
Daguerreotypes were always cased for protection. Each one of these steps had a potential for causing the main problem in damaged daguerreotypes, tarnishing.

Humidity and micro-organisms were main causes tarnishing. Glue was liberally used as a sealer for the paper coverings of the preserver and the cases. The glue eventually dried out, enabling the bad elements to enter. The glue also contained toxic chemicals.


Until the 1950’s the method used to repair and clean daguerreotypes was a cleaning solution of potassium cyanide, a truly dangerous concoction created by the renowned Professor I. M. Dumbe.
Not only was the cyanide solution dangerous to health, but it also destroyed parts of the image.
The cyanide solution was replaced by an acidified phosphoric acid. Both methods proved harmful. Both removed tarnishing, however, they also removed the silver which was the basic emulsion and image of the daguerreotype. The finished daguerreotypes were covered in a thin gold gilt finish to add depth to the image. The gold gilding was also ruined if inexperience amateur repair people and even by experienced archivists.
Electrochemical cleaning is probably the most current an accepted method. Electro cleaning also requires very expensive equipment.
Ambrotypes used a glass base to apply the emulsion chemicals onto. The back of the ambrotype was usually painted black and this eliminated the reflection problem of the daguerreotypes. Most ambrotypes were cased. The major problem with any attempt at cleaning ambrotypes is scratching the emulsion. Because it is glass based any scratch will eliminate the image and let the black backing show through.

tin types
Tintypes were on an iron base. Never on tin! The Iron base was shellacked or varnished and a negative image was applied. Scratching from improper handling remains a problem. While most tintypes are found lose some were originally in cases making them difficult to just look at and determine whether it is a tintype or ambrotype. A magnet on the glass will easily if a tintype or not. I have found most tintypes have survived extremely well and a light brushing with a non-static cloth is all that is required. I would say if you have a truly treasured daguerreotype, ambrotype or tintype, take it to a recommended conservator and get an estimate on the cost of repair. Don’t try it yourself. A qualified conservator repair will probably start around $100 for minor cleaning but will go up quickly from there. But the results can be stunning and worthwhile.

Tintypes were a tougher lot. Basically a two-layered photo, however, it was usually covered with a final protective coating. The image quality was nowhere near that of the previous types of photos. The tintypes were underexposed and tend to lack detail and contrast. Tintypes were usually uncased and received lots of rough handling. After having said tintypes are tougher trying to clean a tintype is a no-no. Tintypes two major problems are oxidization and scratching. Oxidization is caused by poor storage in hostile environments. Scratching is caused by poor handling and storage. Avoid handling and if you do, hold tintype only by the edges. When storing tintypes, it is best to place them in archival storage envelopes. Never stack tintypes on top of each other.
Best advice is to leave daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes to experts.
Paper prints have their own enemies. Mold and staining along with fading are the main culprits. Mildew is often mentioned. Mold and mildew are both fungi but mold goes below the surface and causes damage while mildew survives on the surface. Mildew can usually be brushed off after being allowed to dry and placed in a moisture free environment because it’s a surface problem. Unfortunately, mold goes below the surface and is almost impossible to remove without damaging the photo. Mold is typically a black or greenish color. Mildew tends to be white or greyish. Foxing is also a problem. Foxing is usually a reddish brown color. Foxing is also a humidity and moisture problem.

mold and foxing photomold and foxing photo

Another problem is these cute little guys. And their telltale signs of ragged edges.

Mice don’t eat the photos or paper but use it for nesting. There is no solution for repairing this damage. In the future make sure your photos are stored in archival containers in a dry area. Or get a cat.
cdv's and cabinet cards

The first commercial paper prints were cdvs or carte de visites. CDV’s were also called visiting cards. These thin paper prints were mostly made by the albumen process. Because of the thinness of the print paper, they had to be mounted on a cardboard backing.

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cdv's and cabinet cards
Many collections will have CDV’s and cabinet cards, and some may suffer from mold, fingerprints, and foxing. Water stains can be several different colors. Identifying problems can be very confusing. Most of these problems will be below the surface of the photo, into the emulsion of the photo. Drastic measures of trying to fix problems can lead to permanent loss of the image. Keeping in mind the thinness of these early albumen photos, rubbing or scrapping is not a good idea! Some suggest using water, perhaps on a Q-tip.

While Q-tips should be part of a working kit for old photos, they really can’t solve the problems on the emulsion as the mold; stains and foxing go below the surface. Using water or household cleaners, even lightly and in small amounts can cause damage. I do use a makeup brush (usually found in several convenient sizes in my wife’s makeup bag) to lightly brush the face side (emulsion side) of cdv’s and cabinet cards.

A makeup brush or something similar is also an important part of a working kit.

The cdv’s and cabinet cards using the albumen process were pretty much gone by the early 1900’s. Replacing albumen prints were silver-gelatin and collodion prints. Albumen papers suffered from several problems. Albumen prints tended to be “soft working” meaning of low contrast. Longevity of the albumen photos was also a problem for professional photographers. The albumen photos tended to fade and discolor rapidly.

cdv's and cabinet cardsSilver gelatin prints were a bit thicker. Early prints were still mounted on cardboard, especially the RPPC’s (Real Photo Post Cards) of the early 1900’s. I just purchased this one a few days ago. It is a beautiful example of an RPPC mailed in 1909 from Wahoo, Nebr. Wonderful subject and on a glossy surface. One of the problems solved by silver gelatin prints was the yellow brownish color of the albumen prints and the silver gelatin process greatly reduced fading. This RPPC has a deep brown color with clean blacks and whites, not possible with the old albumen prints.

silver printsUnlike albumen prints, the fibers of the materials used to make the silver prints cannot be seen. Under magnification, the fibers of the high quality rag papers used in albumen prints can be seen. Gelatin silver prints have a thin coating of gelatin on the top layer to hold the chemicals needed with the silver process. This thin layer hides the fiber layer below. A good sign that you have a silver gelatin print is silvering. As the photo ages, the silver tends to bleed to the top of the photo.

This photo has a silvering problem and a mold problem. The photo is from the early 1900’s and is mounted on a cardboard back. While the early silver photos were thicker mounting was still popular, especially with portraits. By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the fiber-based, quality rags used in the photo papers were replaced by wood pulp as a base. While the wood pulp was not as high a quality paper it did present advantages. The drying times involved in developing the papers were greatly reduced. More of the chemicals could be removed during the washing process helping to keep poor processing techniques to a minimum and this helped with the fading and deterioration of the photos images.

In the early 1960’s RC (resin coated papers) were introduced.

A real enemy of the photographic process was improper finishing procedures. Albumen and silver gelatin prints required a thorough washing to remove unwanted chemical residue. Also, a chemical fixing was needed to stop development. Even with long washing and fixing times sometimes not all the chemicals were removed. This could lead to image loss and fading. Resin coated papers use a high-quality paper captured in two thin layers of polyethylene. Polyethylene was placed on the base material making the paper impenetrable to chemicals or water.

Drying times were drastically reduced and a more efficient means of removing residual chemicals from the paper was an added benefit.

The back layer of the polyethylene coating the paper base was clear. The top layer of polyethylene on the paper base was pigmented white to improve overall brightness to the paper. Resin coated paper is still the industry standard after all these years. While many advances have been made to the RC papers they still lack the look and feel of the old silver-gelatin papers. And it is yet to be determined if these papers will survive the test of time of archival properties of the old fiber-based papers, still holding up very well after a period of over 100 years plus!
As I mentioned daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes are best left to professionals to attempt to clean and restore.
The albumen and silver gelatin photos can be helped a bit. Look the prints over carefully with a loupe or magnifying glass. Surface dirt may be able to be brushed off if done carefully. I often use an art spatula to gently loosen dirt. A spatula is a handy tool to have in your kit.
I never recommend using water on an old print. There are also emulsions cleaners on the market and again I don’t recommend using them. The albumen and silver-gelatin photo emulsion is easy to scratch and destroy! A soft lint-free static free cloth used gently can do wonders. Mildew is a surface fungus. It can only survive in a humid, moist environment. Once mildew is determined, remove the photo from all other photos. It will spread. When dry, mildew should be able to be brushed away. Once dry and in a controlled mildew should not return.
Mold is much more of a problem. It goes below the surface into the emulsion of the photo and can do considerable damage. Mold is also highly toxic and easily spreads. The only cure for mold on photos is to move the photos to a dry, moister free place. Touching mold can spread it. Once dried, like the mildew, most spores should no longer be active.
I use disposable powder-free vinyl gloves.

Attics, basements, and garages are not good storing places for your photo treasures. They need to be in storage containers, archival if possible and in a low humidity, 50% or lower and moister free area.
If your photos stink from fire, mildew, and mold, baking soda may help. Not always effective but I have been successful more than once doing this. Place the stinky photos in a container with a layer of baking soda on the bottom. I use a cooking rack to separate the photos from the baking soda. Leave in the container for 24 hours or so. Try it with just a few of the photos to see if this technique works on them.
Before any cleaning steps are tried I strongly suggest digitizing the originals. Scanning them will give you a file of the original should something happen to your original. It also gives you a file to work on and correct problems such as mold and stains.

Amazing results can be achieved with a little effort in a graphics program!

Mold doesn’t go away. Unless your photos are moved to a safe, low humidity and moister free environment, mold will continue to grow and destroy your photos.

I’ve decided to do a third part of these articles. In the next part, I will show how I handled an old photo from beginning to end. The photo was torn, in pieces and dirty, with the right processes it can be revived! 

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