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The Thompson Library Blog

How to uncurl your old photos - Advice from an Archivist

by Colleen Marquis on 2021-01-22T15:21:02-05:00 in Archives | Comments

A while back we featured our Archivist, Colleen Marquis, on Facebook and Instagram for "Ask and Archivist..." It was so popular that we are bringing you monthly in-depth answers to your local history, archives, special collections, and preservation questions.

One of the most popular questions was regarding caring for Family Photos. Chances are you have a lot of precious memories in photo format somewhere in your house. Maybe they look like this:

Curled photographs

 

No shame if they do! These are actually my family's photographs. When my dad pulled them down from the attic they were curled and bound with a rubber band. The band was so old that when I took I started to remove it the brittle dry rubber just came to pieces. He said something like, "Yeah, I figured that probably wasn't right."

No...no it wasn't.

Curled picture of child

(Hi Dad! Thanks for the old photos!)

Old photos tend to curl up as they age if they are not kept in a frame or in a photo album. (P.S. don't keep your original photos in frames or photo albums either!) This happens as the paper and photo emulsion begins to age and dry out. Even if you press these photos in a book the curl always pops back. The solution is humidity.

An archivist will tell you to keep all of your documents cool and dry stored in a dark place to keep them from mold damage and sun/light bleaching. However, humidity can be useful in preservation. By gently humidifying tightly rolled documents you reintroduce moisture into the plant cells that make up the fiber of the paper. In very short order, the curled photos become soft, pliable - and easily flattened with no damage to the material.

 

Step One: Gather Materials 

One clear plastic tub with a lid

Clear plastic tub with lid

 

One cooling rack

Wire cooling rack

 

Just enough water to cover the bottom of the tub

glass vase of water

Freezer paper (or parchment paper or archival plastic sleeves or anything non-tacky/sticky)

Reynolds Freezer paper, sheets of parchment paper, archival plastic sheets

 

Step Two: Pour the water.

Pour enough water into the tub so that it just covers the bottom of the tub. It's important to do this before you put in the cooling rack or you risk damaging your photos with any water droplets that splash up and cling to the rack. You want the photos damp - not wet!

The water should be barely there; you do not want to have a deep tub of water. It's a waste and if a photo falls in you'll hopefully only have a wet corner instead of a drowned mess.

Hand pouring vase of water into plastic tub

 

Step Three: Place the cooling rack in the tub with the feet in the water.

I love cooling racks for this. The large spaces between the bars of the rack allow for a lot of water vapor to reach the photos in a uniform fashion.

Cooling rack in tub with water

 

Step Three: Place photos on the cooling rack

Eight curled pictures on top of cooling rack

 

Step Four: Close the tub

Ok, it's magic time. The tub is sealed so any evaporating water is trapped. The light getting into the clear tub helps to speed this up. Now you will want to keep an eye on the photos. Luckily, your tub is clear so it's easy to keep an eye on your keepsakes. When you first put the photos in, take note of the curl so you can make sure you pull them out as soon as they've relaxed. Here are the photos right before the lid goes on. Very curly. 

Side view of closed tub with rack and curled pictures inside

35 minutes later, you can see how much they've already relaxed.

Side view of closed tub with rack and uncurled pictures inside

 

Keep the photos in the humidifier for about an hour and the photos, depending on paper type and thickness, will be laying flat and will feel vaguely damp when you touch them. Don't panic, that's what you want! If they don't flatten completely leave in for another half an hour and check again. Don't go over 4 hours as you may run the risk of encouraging mold growth.

Though they look flat, maybe even floppy, the memory of the paper fibers remains. If you don't take the last step to press them while they are damp you will just curl again as soon as they are dry. That's where the freezer paper comes in:

Three heavy books stacked on top of sheets of freezer paper and pictures

 

Put your humidified photos between two layers of freezer paper. Face them with the curl/photo up and then put some heavy stuff on them, the heavier the better. You don't want the photos to be touching anything but the freezer paper while they are damp as that could cause the photo emulsion to fuse to whatever it's touching and ruin the photo. Let them press as long as you like, but 24-48 hours should be plenty. The final result will be a flat, dry photo ready to be scanned and then put away for future generations! Be sure to pack your photos tightly in sleeves so they do not have the opportunity to curl again.


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