Best Practices for Storing Heirloom Photographs

Best Practices for Storing Heirloom Photographs


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{This post was updated 27 Feb 2017}

Cleaning out my grandmother’s house was a monumental job.  More than the family historian, I felt like the family archaeologist uncovering pieces of my grandparents’s lives. Some were poignant, some were good memories that had been forgotten, and then there was the sealed attic.

Years priors, my grandfather had duct taped the attic door (one of the hidden stairway attics in the ceiling) shut.  This was an attempt to keep heat and/or air conditioning from escaping. Fast forward to four adults staring up at that duct taped attic door. It was time to clear out the attic.

As the duct tape came down I had the feeling of being Indiana Jones waiting to enter the Temple of Doom. (hee hee!)

Duct tape removed and stairs unfolded. We poked our heads up in the attic to see what we faced.  Old boxes, wrapping paper, bags all disintegrated (literally) at our touch. But simply sitting on the attic floor was framed photographed of my grandfather holding my dad as a toddler.  Amazingly the photograph was in perfect shape! (It now hangs in my home.)

I’m always surprised when family heirloom photographs are found.  I am more surprised at the conditions that many of them survived!

Other photos in my collection survived 50+ years stored in a trunk in a southern Virginia barn. The photo above survived years in an eastern North Carolina attic. Imagine the heat! Still others faded and were damaged in those magnetic photo albums.

Still… no Focus on Photos series on our ancestors’ photographs is complete without discussing how to properly store and care for our family photos.

What can we do to make sure these photographs last for future generations?

The Basics of Storing Your Precious Family Photographs

Basics of Storing Your Heirloom Photographs
Source: Pixabay

Let’s start with the basics of photo storage. This may be a review for many of you or seem a bit obvious, but stating the obvious can be a good thing.

  • The best place to store photographs is in a cool, dry place. Attics (or barns in my family’s case!) and basements are not good places to store your photographs.
  • Avoid storing photos in extreme temperatures. Less than 75°F is best.
  • Avoid storing photos in high extremely low humidity. High humidity promotes mold growth and low humidity promotes brittle photos.
  • Avoid storing photos in direct light. Direct sunlight fades photographs.
  • Avoid those magnetic photo albums.


Storing Your Photos in Archival Safe Boxes

Archival Storage for Your Photographs
Source: Pixabay

What does “archival safe” mean when it comes to storing your photographs? Archival safe means the photo box, album, sleeve, etc is lignin-free, acid-free, PVC-free and has a neutral pH to prevent the degradation of your photos.

Photo boxes are a popular way to store family photographs. Even though you use archival safe photo boxes, there are ways to further safe guard your precious photographs.

  • Don’t over fill the photo box. Stuffing “just one more” into the box risks scratching or tearing of your photo.
  • Don’t under fill your photo box either. Under filling a box encourages bowing of the photographs.  Avoid this by using the correct size box or use a spacer to if needed.
  • Store like sized photos together. This prevents excessive shifting that could scratch your photographs.
  • Use archival photo sleeves to further protect your old photographs. Sleeves come in a variety of sizes.  Place only one photo in a sleeve and use a sleeve that is slightly larger than the photograph.  You do not want the edges of your photo extending beyond the sleeve. (See an example here.)
  • What about over-sized photos?  Store in the appropriate sized  flat box. Archival photo boxes come in a variety of sizes.
  • When you are handling your photographs, make sure your work area is clean and dry and your hands are free of any lotions or oils.

Sources for Archival Safe photo storage products

Protecting Your Photographs From Catastrophic Events

Sometimes the unimaginable happens and natural disasters destroy our precious heirlooms.  How can we protect our family heirloom photographs from fire, floods or just poor storage options?

  • Have copies made and store off-site in a safe deposit box.  Distribute copies among other family members for safe keeping.
  • Digitize photographs and back up in cloud storage such as Dropbox or on flash drive.  Picture Keeper is a flash drive designed specifically to backup and organize photographs.

What Do You Do If Your Photographs Have Already Been Damaged?

I have to state up front, I am not an expert in fixing or restoring photographs. With that said, I can offer you some sources for what to do with your damaged photographs.

  • For your antique heirloom photographs such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes or tintypes, consult with an archivist.  Antique photographs require special care.  Tip: Check with a local or state archives and/or history museum for experts in your area.
  • Do you need to get photographs our of those magnetic albums?  Are they stuck tight? Check out these tips by genealogist Kimberly Powell.
  • Do you have photographs that are just dirty?  Have they been stashed in a box along with the dust bunnies?  If you are concerned about damaging the photo, one the best way to preserve it is to digitize the photo.  You can scan it on your home scanner or use your smartphone scanner app such as CamScanner. Once you have a digital copy of your photograph, use photo editing software such as Photoshop or PicMonkey (online) to restore your photo digitally. Once done, your photographs are ready to share in digital scrapbooks.

I wrote this post as much for you, my readers, as myself.  I have a large collection of old family photos and need to focus on storing them more safely.  How about you? Will you join me?

Please note that this post contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission if you decide to purchase a product/service. This does not cost you extra. Be assured I only recommend products/services that I use  and think you would like too.

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