Storing Photo Negatives

By Lynn Ewbank Premium

Your negatives are the key to being able to reprint your precious family photos. Whether you’re preserving 100-year-old glass negative treasures or snapshots of last weekend’s soccer game, you need to know a bit about negatives.

Originally, photography was a single-surface process that allowed for the production of only one image, such as one daguerreotype. Duplicates became possible when England’s William Henry Fox Talbot invented the negative-positive process in 1839. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer developed a mixture that caused photochemicals to stick to glass plates—the birth of the glass negative.

Historically, negatives come in two forms: glass and plastic. Practically, you can include slides in this category, even though they are positive images, because they are on the same bases. “Lantern slides” are on glass, while modern slides are on plastic. The base determines the proper storage technique:

Hazard: Potential for breaking
Storage: Store the negative upright on its long edge, encased in heavy archival paper, in a heavy archival box-all designed to prevent movement ,which can cause surface scratching or breakage. Identifying the contents as glass on the outside of the box can provide additional protection.
More: Have copy negatives made to use for printing and retire the actual glass negatives from use. Lantern slides often come in wooden cases, which can be kept and used if surfaces are first sealed with polyurethane varnish.

Hazard: Negatives most often suffer from scratching, cracking, sticking to non-archival negative holders and loss due to inattention.
Storage: Plastic negatives often get left in the acidic envelope in which they were received. A better bet is an archivally safe, clear, inert-plastic negative holder that allows for viewing without handling. Similar pages are also made for slides: Saf-T-Stor pages, available from archival materials suppliers such as Light Impressions, are the safest choice for slide storage. Each polypropylene page holds 20 slides and fits into a three-ring binder or hanging file cabinet.
More: Watch for nitrate negatives. Have them copied or printed, then dispose according to local fire regulations.

For 12 tips to make sure your precious family photos are safe for the next generation to enjoy, see the premiere issue of Family Tree Magazine.