How to Preserve Your Heirloom Victorian Photo Album

By Denise May Levenick Premium

Elaborate, heavy Victorian albums gained popularity with the rise of portrait photography in the mid-19th century. Photographers saw a ready market for photo albums as families purchased multiple tintypes, large “cabinet cards” and smaller carte de visite photographs. Care for your heirloom antique album as you would any special book, with extra consideration for the photographs inside.

1. Wash up.

When working with old photos and albums, wash your hands first. You also could wear white cotton or nitrile gloves. Handle photos by the edges, never touching the surface with bare fingers.

2. Judge the book by its cover.

Victorian photo albums came in various sizes, from tiny books for miniature prints to large tabletop display volumes. Velvet, celluloid, leather, metal, and fabric were used as decorative covers, held together by embossed brass hinges. Take note of the materials that make up your album and use appropriate preservation techniques. Avoid using any kind of cleaner or solvent. Keep metal parts scrupulously dry and dust with a soft, clean cloth. Don’t set anything on top of velvet or fabric books where it might leave an impression in the fabric. Dust with a soft cloth or use a screen-covered vacuum hose if needed.

3. Protect the pages.

These early albums were designed with thick, double-sided pages with gilt edges. Openings in the page or along one side allowed one or more photographs to be inserted and viewed through decorative cutout windows. You can protect the photographs and any decorative printing from abrasion by inserting sheets of acid-free tissue paper, available from Gaylord Archival, between the album pages.


4. Take a peek.

You may want to remove each photo from the pages to check the back and edges for notes or a photographer’s imprint (which gives the name and location of the photography studio). Take care to avoid damaging the album or print. It’s helpful to use a thin microspatula or pair of long-handled tweezers. Scan both sides of the image at a resolution of 600 dpi (dots per inch) or higher in full color (even for a black-and-white image), and replace the photo.


5. Get the big picture.

Most antique albums are too large and fragile to place on a flatbed scanner for digitizing. Instead, use your digital camera to take photographs of the entire book. Place a table in front of a north-facing window for diffused natural light, and use a pillow to support the open album. Position your camera at right angles to the book on a tripod. Use a remote shutter release for a shake-free photo. Start with the covers (front, back and spine) and take close-ups of any decorative detail, then move to the inside pages. Fill the camera frame with the page, but don’t cut off the edges. When you’ve finished digitizing the album, import images to your computer for renaming with meaningful filenames and keywords. Back these up along with your other family history files.

6. Store safely.

Our ancestors displayed their albums with pride in the main parlor for visitors to admire. But you’ll want to preserve an old album away from light, dust, pests and other environmental hazards. Store it inside an acid-free, archival-quality drop-front box (right). Allow for an inch or two of space on all sides and prevent movement by cushioning the album with lightly crumpled acid-free tissue paper. If the binding is intact, store the box upright like a book on a shelf. Store fragile or damaged albums flat in their boxes. The best spot for the boxed album is inside a closet with moderate temperature and humidity (ideally, 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent relative humidity). Avoid temperature fluctuations.

7. Isolate foreign objects.

Acid migration and abrasion from newspaper clippings, notepaper, souvenir ephemera, dried flowers, locks of hair and other objects can permanently damage photos and album pages. If you find such items inside your album, photograph the page to show the context and then remove the item to store elsewhere (small polyester envelopes make viewing these items easy). If you wish, you can photocopy the item onto acid-free paper and include it with the album in the archival box.

8. Don’t DIY.

Resist the urge to repair loose or broken bindings and torn pages yourself. Restoring antique albums is usually a job for a professional conservator. Find one in your area using the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ online directory.

9. Consider context.

The way photos are arranged in your album can be a clue to identifying unfamiliar faces. “Portraits of husbands and wives were typically displayed alongside each other,” says British photo expert Jayne Shrimpton. “On the same or adjacent pages were often inserted pictures of any children, while photographs of other family members branched out further throughout the album.” But it’s also common to find family members scattered throughout the book in seemingly random order. I Note famous faces. Having a picture of a famous person in your album doesn’t mean you’re related to him. Photos were sold much like trading cards, and people enjoyed collecting and sharing pictures of famous people and places.


Use This: Drop-Front Archival Box

A drop-front box like this one from Gaylord Archival makes it easier to remove your album from the box and put it back in. Just be careful not to slide the album in and out of the box, which could damage the covers. Instead, open the box lid, lower the drop front and gently lift the album with clean hands.

From the May/June 2017 Family Tree Magazine

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