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May 21, 2011

Continuing to Document the Donated Civil War Era Photo Album

Readers may recall that a few days ago a Civil War era photo album arrived in my mailbox. It was sent to me by a reader of my Olive Tree Genealogy blog, who had also seen my Lost Faces website

When I acquire an antique photo album, I follow certain steps. I'm sure that an archivist would scold me, but I do the best I can to carefully document and remove the photos from their album pages.

Example from Photo Album

The first thing I do is photograph the album as it is. I take pictures of the front and back covers, then I snap photos of each album page (with the photos intact).

I don't fuss too much with this step as I am only interested in documenting exactly what photos was on each page, and the order of placement in the album.

This is my record which I save so that I can return the photos to the album if I choose to do that later.

Next I want to record whatever has been written in the photo album or on the front of each photo. First I have to decide on a name for the album. My usual method for naming an album is to see what surname is most recorded and use that. Sometimes I just start with the first identified photo and use that surname. It really doesn't matter what I name the album, it is just a way for me to distinguish between my collection of over 50  Civil War Era albums.

For this album I chose SUTTON as the name. I start with SUT-1 as the identifier for the first photo (using a 3 letter abbreviation of the album name and numeric order) on a blank piece of lined paper. I could record this on my computer using WORD or even EXEL but I prefer to use pen and paper for these first stages.  So I begin with SUT-1 and the inscription, if there is one, for each photo. If there is no inscription I put a brief description of the photo - only a few words such as "head & shoulders, young woman, bow at neck"

I learned the hard way to leave a few lines blank between each numbered description on my paper. After I remove the photos I will be adding to each description whatever is found on the reverse (verso) of each photo. Sometimes there are hidden treasures - another photo tucked between two visible photos, or a lengthy description on the back, or the photographer's logo plus a revenue stamp and date. So I need lots of room to record this. Also, if I find hidden photos tucked between others, leaving room lets me add a subset of numbers. So if I have photos  SUT-1 followed by photo SUT-2 but find a CDV tucked between those photos, I can add SUT-1a to my documentation. Using the "a" designation reminds me that the photo was hidden.

My next step takes patience, a steady hand and lots of time. I'm not great with the patience part but I force myself to go slowly.  I'm ready to carefully remove the photos from the album. This album is approximately 150 years old and most of the photos have been in it for that long. Pages are brittle and tear easily. Most of the photos are CDVs which are paper. Over the last 150 years some have stuck to the album inserts or to each other.

Each photo is back to back with another photo and although originally there was a thin paper insert between each one, that is often missing.  The tintypes don't stick to each other but they are much thicker than the CDVs, with sharper edges that can tear and rip the album pages. They are often are more difficult to remove without damaging the album.

I start by gently wiggling and sliding the first photo. Sometimes I slide and wiggle it's backing photo at the same time. I don't tug or pull or force. Basically I'm trying to feel if the photos are stuck or might just slide out the bottom easily.

It's difficult to describe my method as it is all based on the feel of the photo in that album. I have a small tool I use for more difficult pictures but I'm a stickler for removing the photos without damage to either the album pages or the photos themselves so using a tool of any kind can be a bit nerve-wracking.

The tool I use has a rounded end (no sharp edges!) and is very thin so it can slide between the photo and the album page that is holding the photo in place. This allows me to gently "unstick" the album pages from the photo at which point I can carefully slide the photo out. Sometimes a photo comes partway and the only way to get it all the way out is to push on an edge. But this too is a tricky move if your goal is no damage.  It can take me anywhere from one minute to 20 minutes to remove one photo from an antique album. I once spent over an hour getting one photo out.

As I remove each photo from the album I record what is on the verso. I also write on the back my own identifier name and number (SUT-1 for example) so that I know what album this photo came from and what it's placement is. I also add whatever was written on the album page for that photo. This step has given me a lot to think about. I have wrestled with my need to document and record each photo and my horror at adding anything to the original photo.

I would prefer to not alter the original photo in any way but with over 3,000 CDVs in my collection I worry that identification of a photo will be lost over time, or that I will not know which album it was found in. So after much thought and discussion with my husband, I've made the decision to record the album identifier and any identification on the back of each photo.

There are many treasures in these photo albums. In the Civil War era album I just received, I found two hidden CDVs tucked between other photos. The final total was 50 CDVs and tintypes. My next blog post will talk about some of the hidden treasures, and various photographer's logos and marks.


Marian Pierre-Louis said...

Great series! I love reading about this album and your collection.

Genealogy Blogger said...

Marian, I'm so glad you are enjoying this series of steps.

I had my husband take a short video of me removing some of the CDVs from the album pages, and am considering whether or not to put it on Olive Tree Genealogy YouTube Channel and embed it in a blog post.

A lot of genealogists have asked me how I go about removing the photos but my only hesitation in showing the video is that I'm NOT an expert! I might be doing it all wrong

Thanks for the RT on Twitter :-)

Ginger Smith said...

Hi Lorine. Thanks for sharing. Even if you are doing it wrong maybe someone can suggest how to do it better. Then you can make a new video with the updated modifications!

Deb said...

Lorine, I'm so glad to hear that you are photographing the album pages in order! So many people don't understand that retaining the context of the photos is potentially retaining the mindset of the person who created the album. This isn't always the case, as sometimes you can tell that many people had a hand in crafting the final product, but often you don't know for sure.

You could place each photo into an acid-free photo sleeve as soon as you remove it from the album (you are wearing cotton film gloves, I assume, to handle the photos - you don't mention it). Then you could write any extra and contextual info on a label on that sleeve. If you do continue writing on the backs, or if you just add the ID to connect it to a sleeve with label, use a soft pencil (which you may already know) to reduce any chance of impressing onto the front and for easier erasing.

One last tip is to try dental floss to break the adhesive bond - I played around with several brands & types before I found one that worked for me in cutting through the glue blobs (century-old blobs!) in my grandmother's childhood photo albums, with photos and postcards pasted onto black cardstock. Lots of black sediment/paper dust is also created so I keep soft brushes and film brushes around to dust off the photos before I place them into acid-free photo sleeves. Don't blow on the photos as it introduces moisture and bacteria to the surfaces.

For people trying to deal with these old black-paper photo albums: If you even suspect that the glue bonds won't break apart easily, or that in trying you may slice through a photo, scan it first! Scan it at a high resolution with no scanner correction, and save as TIFF for an archival scan. Also, if there is anything written on the paper by the photo, include that in the archival scan. If you can successfully separate the photo from the paper, cut out the ID and place it in a tiny acid-free sleeve and put it down into the larger sleeve with the photo, so you've saved Grandma's own writing and ID. And be sure to photograph the intact pages in order before starting out :)

You can find acid-free sleeves at a great cost (since for most "citizen archivists," the supplies at Light Impressions, etc. are prohibitively expensive these days) on eBay, for one. I buy the acid-free postcard sleeves, which come in many different sizes, in bulk - and often pay a fraction of the cost of the true "archival suppliers."

For larger items, I found an extensive line of sizes of acid-free sleeves at PrintFile (join their Facebook Page and get heads-up on discount coupons). I back an item with acid-free cardstock for added protection against being folded or crumpled; OR if it's a very large item, I'll put it in an acid-free sleeve and then attack that to a piece of white foam-core cut to size. (I buy several sheets at a time of foam-core when it's on sale at craft stores like Michael's and Hobby Lobby.)

LOL - Now that I've typed this stream-of-consciousness post, I should craft a few posts for my own "citizen archivist" Page :) which I've been neglecting lately.

Deb said...

Lorine - I don't know if you can change this - my Google ID for posts is *supposed to be* - was in a diff. gmail account when I read your post ... and my website is


Genealogy Blogger said...

Great ideas, Deb. I wish Light Impressions would ship to Canada but when I tried to purchase their single sleeve archival holders, they never responded to my query about shipping here.

Too bad too because I dropped several hundred dollars at Global Genealogy instead.

However GG only had archival pages that hold several photos at once. So I don't want to write on the outside as I organize my CDVs by estimated date and by topic (women, children, men, families..)and that means the order of photos changes as I acquire more

My wish would have been single holders for each CDV so I could have written on the outside instead of on the photo.

Deb said...

Lorine - Look on eBay for photo sleeves and postcard sleeves. I think my info about that was shared in a too-lengthy sentence ... I was suggesting people look on eBay for affordable acid-free sleeves. I have found several diff. sizes of single sleeves that cover all the sizes of photos I have. That way, I can place a label on the sleeve for the info. And of course the photos can be rearranged indefinitely if they are in single sleeves. Good luck! I love this topic :)