The holidays are a perfect time to sit down and record information about those old family photos that you have stashed. It’s a fun activity that the entire family can enjoy – allowing older family members to reminisce about ‘old times,’ and giving the younger generations a chance to pause and appreciate the history they are hearing.
Many older photographs (before 1960) use an uncoated paper medium to which the emulsion is secured. For these types of photos, use a soft lead pencil to safely record information on back of the photo. The pencil doesn’t stain or run the way ink can if it gets damp.
Photographs processed after 1960 were printed on a coated paper called resin, which does not work well with pencil. For these photos, consider buying a special felt-tipped marking pen specifically designed for marking photographs. Avoid ballpoint-type pens since they rely on pressure to mark and may emboss the front of your precious photo.
DO NOT record information on the backs of the oldest types of photographs, such as daguerreotypes or ambrotypes. You can permanently damage these pictures.
Group photographs can have a problem with lack of space on the back of the photo. Take a moment to either scan or photocopy the picture. Mark each person with a number on the photocopy side and use the opposite side for recording names or other miscellaneous information about the event.
The best area to mark on a photo is along its edge, where the markings can have the least impact on the opposite side’s image. Mark each photograph separately and use a clean, flat, hard surface as your base (not a stack of other photos). To prevent embossing on the front of the photo, write with light pressure. Ink is quite difficult to remove from the front of the photograph and may cause permanent damage. When using ink, allow each photo to dry before putting one on top of another (don’t blow on them, just set them aside).
By taking time to provide captions to your family photos, you help ensure that your family story will be passed on for many generations.
More information can be found at “Captioning Photographs,” from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.