Have boxes of family photos? Not sure what to do with them? Learn how to store old photos safely for future generations.
Old Family Photos

How To Store Old Family Photographs

Ever wondered how to store old photographs?  I’m amazed at where I’ve found old family photos. Some in hot, dusty attics and some sealed in ziploc bags.  Some in those magnetic photo albums. Oh, and of course, some were found in a trunk in a barn where they had been for 50+ years! Somehow they survived when they should not have. 

But let’s back up a bit….

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’ 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 many year to four adults staring up at that duct taped attic door.

It was time to clear out the attic. In North Carolina. In the summer! 

Box of old family photos of various ages. White text on red background reading How to store Old family photos.

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, and 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.)

Honestly, we got lucky, and I realized I needed to learn how to store my old family photos if I wanted them to be around for future generations.

How To Store Old Family Photographs

1910's photo of young man known as Rueben Richardson. Wearing a suit and tie.
Reuben Richardson

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.

Ways To Store Your Family Photographs

Box of old family photos
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 when you use archival safe photo boxes, there are ways to further safe guard your precious photographs.

  • Do not over fill the photo box. Stuffing “just one more” into the box risks scratching or tearing of your photo.
  • Do not 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.
Black and white photo of man and woman from the early 1900's

Finding Sources for Archival Safe Photo Storage Products

Black and white photo of 2 young men from the 1910's. Both wearing a coat and tie.

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.
  • Devon Noel Lee shares how to protect our family’s precious items in her book Preserve the Perishable.

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

Young boy and girl playing in swimming pool in the late 1960's.

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 out 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 Photomyne. Once you have a digital copy of your photograph, use photo editing software such as Vivid-Pix (my favorite!) to restore your photo digitally. Once done, your photographs are ready to share online or in digital scrapbooks.

Let’s take care of our old family photos for the generations to come!

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  • Lula Blue

    Thank you for sharing this Lisa! My mother has all of our old family photos stored in her attic. Some 100+ years old! I may need to suggest a Photo organizing party!

    I would hate to lose such a treasure!

  • Janet White

    I have some very damaged photos. How can regular old color photos be cleaned? They have cat hair, cat spray, cat boogers…you name it. My daughter is moving across the country and i’m putting together a scrapbook. HELP!!!

    • LisaL

      Janet, Great question and a very common problem! I love that you are putting together a scrapbook for your daughter. Sit tight for a little bit while I pull some sources and ideas together for you.

  • Margot Note

    Another resource to check out is my book, Creating Family Archives: How to Preserve Your Papers and Photographs. It outlines fast, easy, and inexpensive ways to organize, protect, and display your photographs and how to preserve your photo albums. I also have an exclusive Facebook group devoted to the topic: https://www.facebook.com/groups/CreatingFamilyArchives/
    Anyone who is interested in this post is welcome to join!
    I’ll post a link to this blog entry because my members will be interested.

  • Susan Sagers

    Thanks for the information about archiving photos. I have mine in better condition that they were but need to do a better job.

    This is a different subject but I have lots of family pictures. I got many from my mother and father. I also have many pictures that I don’t know what to do with. Are there sites that you can post pictures with information that you have that aren’t your family? I have many of my dad’s World War II pictures. They have many people that I don’t know in them and I know some family my like to have them.


  • Gloria A. Mahaffey

    Sadly I did not check for roof leaks in the room, where I do Genealogy. The last hurricane here in N. FL. caused water to leak on my photos destroying several.

  • Shelby Baltzley

    This post is timed perfectly! Currently scanning and sorting family photos (since I inherited both sets of my grandparents’, and my parents’ pictures as well as 34 years of accumulated family photos and a healthy chunk of my husband’s family photos as well. I created 2 private Facebook groups – one for my mom’s side and one for my dad’s – and I’m posting groups of photos almost daily and then sorting out packages to send to family members. That way we all have access to the entire family group but each individual family will have their heirloom photos returned to them. I’ve sent out 3 packages and have 8 packages to send this week. Some have offered to help with postage and at some point I’ll probably take them up on it but for now it just makes me happy sharing them. And some of my cousins are starting to share their pictures as well! But for the ones I’m keeping… this post gives me the tips I need for storage until ***someday*** I get to making those photo albums. Thank you!

  • Louise

    Hi Lisa,

    As always, a great, informative post. Thank you!

    My Q… If you have answered this elsewhere, please post the URL.

    I am the end of the line in my family. I have several boxes of photos from the 1920s of my grandparents, by mother in her stroller in 1919, and other photos and letters through the years. The faraway cousins on either side of the family aren’t interested in them. What do you (or anyone here) recommend I do with them (the photos, not the cousins)?

    I am in the process of scanning everything and probably uploading to Ancestry so at least they will be accessible to others when I’m not here. Just seems a shame to put them in the trash after I’m gone. I’m not planning to go yet – still have a good many years left! Just thinking ahead.

    • LisaL

      This is always a tough question and one that is common, too. I suggest checking with local libraries – sometimes they need things like that for their vertical files. They may also know other local options for you. Check with historical societies, too.

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