Cleaning Old Family Photographs: Part 1

Do you have dirt spots or stains on Aunt Mary’s face? Mold keeping you from handling and digitizing your old family photographs? The first step is to try and identify what type of photos you are dealing with.

More articles by Bob Walden

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The first photographs were applied to many different surfaces. Daguerreotypes used a copper base. Ambrotypes were on a glass base. Tintypes were on an iron base. It wasn’t until 1854 that the use of paper photographs was to become commercially popular. These were thin albumen prints (albumen from egg whites was used as a binder to hold light sensitive chemicals to the paper) placed on a thick cardboard base. They were called carte de visites or CDV’s. CDV’s came in a standard size of 2.5 inches by 4 inches. Cabinet cards were also albumen prints and came in a standard size of 4.25 x 6.5”. Sizes may vary. By the late 1880’s cabinet cards had mostly replaced the CDV’s. Many personal collections will contain these early photographic prints. Usually, these were portraits of relatives. Albumen prints were popular from the mid-1850’s until the very early 1900’s. Unfortunately, albumen prints tended to be of low contrast. Permanency was also a problem with the albumen papers. The papers rapidly faded and changed colors. By 1900, gelatin and collodion papers had pretty much replaced the albumen prints. Although both gelatin and collodion prints were still being mounted on cardboard. The print paper was still thin and needed the backing.

family photograph
Paper manufacturers seeking to outdo their competitors started to make the backing cards in different shape, sizes, and colors. Different names were given to the cardboard backings such as Boudoir, Imperial, Victoria, and Promenade.
Collodion prints lasted until approximately 1910. While the gelatin process had been around since the mid-1850’s it wasn’t until 1900 when George Eastman changed photography by producing a camera for the masses using a gelatin roll film.

Eastman then began using gelatin for his photographic papers. Most photographs in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were printed by contact printing. The photo paper would be placed on the negative then exposed to a light source.

While enlargers were just starting to come into use in the early 1900’s, many studio photographers were still using large format cameras enabling them to contact print up to 11×14 images. In 1894 Dr. L. H. Baekeland started manufacturing Velox Photographic papers. While these papers were only suitable for contact printing it gave amateurs a way to develop and print their photos easily at home. George Eastman, always the entrepreneur and marketer bought Dr. Baekeland’s company and the papers became Kodak Velox Photographic Papers. Velox papers were still being used into the late 1960’s. My first part-time high school job was in a photo lab making contact prints on Velox papers. I vividly remember all the yellow Kodak Velox paper boxes lined up with different contrast grade numbers, Grade number 1 for overexposed negatives and Grade number 4 or 5 for underexposed negatives.

SAFE Photo Binder Pages

One of Eastman’s advancements in papers was increasing the thickness of the papers. Although putting photographic prints on cardboard mounts would continue for many years, especially with studio photographers, the larger market consisted of amateurs which became known as snapshooters. Original snapshots were on matte paper. Soon glossy papers became the preferred print surface. Borders were added to the prints which gave the prints a distinctive look. This also allowed the different film formats to maintain some conformity.

Decorative borders with an art deco look were also popular in the 1930’s.

family photography art deco

In 1968 Kodak introduced RC or resin coated papers. I remember the transition well. While still using the same base materials as fiber-based papers, RC papers added a polyethylene coating to the paper base and top layers enabling washing times to be drastically reduced. Pre RC papers needed long wash times to remove the chemicals from the paper. While this was a major advancement for the photographic industry it sucked for the people wanting to save their memories. One of the beauties of quality fiber based papers was their longevity. Early fiber based had a lifespan of 100 years or more. And many have proven to be lasting much longer than that! The early RC papers had a lifespan of fewer than 10 years. Look at some photos of Kodacolor prints from the 1960’s and many of them have faded and changed color. Usually a color shift from reddish magenta or a yellowish green.

family photograph

family photograph

Fortunately with a little work in a graphics program like Photoshop Elements much of the original color and brightness can be returned to the photo.

photograph paper

Photographic prints are made up of layers, starting with a paper base and additional layers made up of chemicals.
Albumen papers were the first photographic papers and they contained two layers. The paper layer had to be free from impurities because they could interfere with the photo chemicals. High-quality cotton rags were used. On early albumen prints, fibers from the rags can be seen under magnification. After WW1 cotton rags were replaced by specially treated wood pulp. Wood pulp was readily available and much cheaper. Albumen prints two layers consisted of the paper base and the emulsion layer.Next were the gelatin silver papers. These papers consisted of three or four layers. The first layer is the paper base. The second layer is the baryta layer, a white opaque coating. The baryta layers purpose is to form a smooth layer to hold the next layer, the gelatin layer. This layer is a binding layer that holds the emulsion or image of the print. The fourth layer is an overcoat or top coat of hardened gelatin, which adds additional protection to the image.

photograph paper
In the early 1960’s RC or resin coated papers were introduced. The paper bases of RC papers are sealed by a layer of polyethylene. An additional top layer was also coated with polyethylene which makes it impenetrable to water or chemicals. RC papers drastically lowered washing times and along came the mini labs and One Hour Labs. The first layer on RC papers was the polyethylene layer. Next was a wood pulp base layer. On top of the base layer another polyethylene layer, followed by the emulsion layer. And finally, a special sealing coating was added.

The importance of knowing the basics of the different paper types and processes helps to date photos and determine how to handle and preserve them. In the next part, I will explain how I preserve, clean (if necessary or possible) and store my photographic treasures.

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