Broken Glass Negatives? No Problem!

16, November 2016

As an archivist in the Museum's Photographs and Prints department, I’m continually amazed at the variety of photographic materials we have in our collections. We have cased images, film negatives, and silver gelatin prints, just to name a few. But my newest favorites are the glass-plate negatives in the Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection, which date from the 1880s through the 1920s. These negatives capture in astonishing detail incredible scenes of St. Louis life during the turn of the century. (Some of these images are also currently on display in our Capturing the City exhibit.)

Photo of rowhousesCan you spot the crack in this negative showing a row of houses from the early 20th century? Missouri History Museum.

Glass-plate negatives were first introduced in 1851 and were the forerunners of film negatives. They had to be prepared, exposed, and developed all at the same time, which means a photographer had to lug the equipment and chemicals from site to site—and then move quickly to complete each step. A new type of glass-plate negative made with light-sensitive emulsion was introduced in the early 1870s. The emulsion allowed photographers to expose the plates and then develop them at a later time. This new technology made photography significantly easier and opened the doors to professionals and amateurs alike.

The vast majority of the glass-plate negatives in the Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection are intact and in good condition, but others haven't fared as well. Some have broken into pieces, and at first look, seem hopelessly damaged. Thankfully, they’re far from a lost cause. As archivists, we can easily restore a complete image by putting the pieces back together and scanning the negative as a whole.

Photo of sink plate and cracked glass negativeAbove: Housing for a broken glass-plate negative. Below: Scan of a broken negative showing the Eads Bridge in January 1887—the time the Mississippi River froze. Missouri History Museum.

Our biggest challenge? Creating safe housing for the broken negatives that would let us access the images while preventing further damage to the fragile glass. There are ways to repair broken glass-plate negatives, but they’re costly in both time and money—and some of the treatments could be harmful to the negatives themselves. Instead, we chose to construct a customized box for each broken negative. The boxes contain a sink mat to enclose the negative, a board inside the sink mat with spacers to hold the pieces in place, and a flap that lifts the negative and board out of the sink mat. With careful handling, we’re confident these broken negatives will survive for many years to come.

Click through the photo gallery below to see some of the images from this amazing collection!

Selections from the Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection

Lauren Sallwasser, Photo Processing Archivist

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