How to Care for (and Display) Old Photos

by Rebecca McCusker March 11, 2019
ReadHow to Care for (and Display) Old Photos

My father, mother, and aunt all took genetic tests recently, which resulted in a deep excavation of old family photographs. Black-and-white photos of my great-great-grandparents standing by Lake Michigan, long-gone ancestors holding up a slab of meat in front of their butcher shop in northern Ohio, and photos of toddlers riding bikes during the Great Depression have since graced our kitchen tables.

I noticed the care with which my family handled these photographs, and it made me wonder: How can we make sure these photographs last through the generations? How can we ensure that these photos make it into the hands of our great-great-grandchildren who might pour over these photos long after we’re gone?

It’s important to preserve what we have left of history, so here are some tips to properly care for antique photographs.

Avoid too much light

If you’ve ever seen an old red sign that’s faded to pink in the sun, you know just how much damage UV rays can cause to an old photo. If you keep photographs where the sun can hit them, they may become washed out over time.

Keep your photos safe in a plastic-bound photo book. Want to frame them and hang them on the wall? Keep them in a darker room or at least in a part of the house where they won’t get direct sunlight.

Many frame shops offer special glass that protects artwork and photographs from harmful UV rays. You’ll spend a little more money, but for vintage photographs, this investment is well worth it.

Avoid water damage

Do not—I repeat—do not store your vintage photographs in a cardboard box on the basement floor where they can sustain water damage. If you live in an especially humid environment, it helps to purchase a dehumidifier for the room in which you store your vintage treasures.

And, when you’re pouring over old photos in your kitchen or living room, make sure all beverages are out of sight. You don’t want to accidentally spill Diet Coke on a 200-year-old photograph.

Avoid extreme variations in temperature and humidity

According to Wilhelm Imaging Research, old photographs should not be stored in places that are too cold or too hot. This means you should find another place to keep old pictures besides your cold basement or hot attic. Keep them in your temperature-controlled living room so they’re not subjected to extreme temperatures.

In general, photographs should be kept in a space with low humidity that rarely fluctuates. Too much humidity can cause fungus to build up over time and can cause cracks in the photographs.

How to properly handle old photographs

Despite all these factors, photographs are most at risk when they’re out and about and being handled by people. When you’re about to leaf through old photos, wash your hands and thoroughly dry them. Never touch the front of the photograph—the part with the actual image—because the oils on your hands can cause the image to fade and distort over time.

With the proper care and keeping methods, precious photographs can last through the generations, and by doing so, we can preserve family history for decades to come.

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