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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    « Where to Store Long Group Photos or Banquet Prints: Treasure Chest Thursday | Main | How Genealogy Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement Makes Everyone a Loser »
    Tuesday
    Jul092013

    Photo Tutorial: How to Relax and Rehumidify Old Rolled Photographs and Documents


     

    If you've ever tried to capture a family photo with everyone smiling at the same time, you know the exquisite torture of group photography. Some wise-guy pulls the rabbit-ears trick at the last minute, or crosses his eyes, or yanks someone's hair. That's why I love those long tightly-rolled panorama photos often found cast aside in family collections. You can usually spot a goofy grin, a secret wink or a wayward hand. It's a second of social history captured by lens and film.

    It's obvious that people don't quite know what to do with these old rolled photos. They resist exploration. When forced flat, the paper often cracks every few inches damaging the photograph. If you try to look at the photo a few inches at a time, carefully handling the paper as though you were reading an ancient scroll, it's hard to get the "big picture" of what's going on.

    This 1929 black-and-white panorama photo is a classic example of what can happen when a brittle rolled photograph is forcibly flattened without first reconditioning the paper; the print is cracked at regular intervals across the entire image.

    I inherited nearly a dozen long group photos from the 1920s through 1960s, most still rolled tight and in good condition. I really wanted to flatten the photos and examine them more closely for genealogical clues to my family history. If nothing else, I thought they would look great framed and hanging on the wall.

    Fortunately, it's not difficult or expensive to relax, or re-humidify, a rolled photo or document.  When I asked Sally Jacobs, The Practical Archivist, if there was a safe method to flatten those old photos, she directed me to the instructions and reassured m:

    "Yes, It's Safe to Try This At Home"

    So I did.

    And it worked!

    The cracked photo shown above was curled in a series of small waves looked like a photographic washboard. Because it was already damaged, I thought it would be a good item to use in my first experiment with the rehumidification process. 

    Since then, I have successfully rehumidified and flattened many panorama photos, and some curled and brittle snapshots. Sally says that the process is also safe with documents, not just photos. Museums and archives create a similar humidification chamber when working with old documents. You don't need any fancy equipment, just a few household items and a bit of common sense about working with your family keepsakes. Here's the recommended method I used with success:

    Step-by-Step Instructions for Relaxing a Rolled Photograph

    You Will Need:
    • rolled or curled photograph
    • plastic tub or container -- deep enough to hold your rack and leave space between the rack and tub lid
    • rubber coated wire rack -- I used an expandable plate rack (you need a rack that is large enough to accommodate your item
    • water -- room temperature
    • archival blotting paper
    • wax paper or parchment paper from your kitchen (optional)

     

    Relax photo fc 1Step 1. Select Your Photograph

    For your first project, select a photo or document that is NOT a priceless heirloom. If you just want to practice this technique, you may be able to find an old rolled photo selling cheap at a thrift store. Most people throw them away (ouch) because they think they're past saving.

    Tap the print with your fingernail. Does it sound hard, like dry pasta? It should feel and sound different when the paper is dehumidified.

    Relax photo fc 2 

    Step 2. The Humidification Chamber

    Place the tub on a towel or rug on your floor in an out-of-the-way spot where you can leave it for a few days. Make sure the rack will fit inside the container and extend long enough to support your photograph. The rolled photo will start needing only a few inches of space, but as it relaxes you may want to gently help it unroll.

    Add about 2 inches of room temperature water. Do NOT use warm or hot water. You don't want  condensation on the underside of the lid that might drip down on to your photo. Use room temperature water.

    Place the rack inside the tub and place your photo on the rack. It will look lonely. 

    Relax photo fc 3

    Step 3. Close the Chamber

    Place the lid on the box and let it sit.

    Relax photo fc 4

    Step 4. Wait.

    Let everything sit there for a few hours. Get on with your life. Read a new blog.

    Relax photo fc 5

    Step 5. Check for Condensation 

    After about an hour, open the container and check  your photo. Make sure there is no moisture dripping on the photo. Feel the paper. Does it feel softer? It will probably need more time to absorb the moisture in the chamber.

    What we are doing here is making moisture available to the paper, so that it can become limber and flexible once again. You don't want too much moisture, because that can damage the print. It could also encourage the growth of mold or mildew. If you notice beads of water on the inside of the cover that could drip down on your print, wipe them off and check your print. Notice the moisture aroung the side walls of the chamber in the next photo. That's okay.

    Relax photo fc 6

    Step 6. Check Again

    After 4 or 5 hours, or overnight, check the paper again. Can you unroll it at all? You may need to do this a few times. Keep checking every few hours until the paper feels relaxed. Look at the difference between this photo and the tightly curled batons in the first step. You can feel the difference in the paper. Tap the print again with your fingernail. It should sound different; softer, more like. . . well, like paper.

    Relax photo fc 8

    Step 7. Remove Your Photo from the Chamber

    When you think the photo feels softer and flexible remove it from the box supporting it with both hands and place it on the blotting paper. Gently ease open the rolled image. If it resists or starts to crack, it needs more moisture. Return it to the humidification chamber.

    At some point the photo will have absorbed enough moisture to relax and allow you to unroll it. If the paper is still extremely brittle and hard you should probably stop and seek professional assistance. I have not experienced this situation.

    Relax photo fc 7

    At this point, your photo is relaxed. Now you need to allow it to dry as a flat print. If you have a  sheet of kitchen wax paper or kitchen paper, you can place this over the surface of the photo before folding the blotting paper over the top. It's not absolutely necessary. 

    Relax photo fc 9

    Step 8. Add Weight and Dry.

    Finally, weight down the entire photo in the blotting paper so that it dries flat. I used a heavy wooden cutting board topped with both volumes of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary  (the heaviest books on my shelves).

    Stitch gurley crop

    Step 9. Allow the Print to Completely Dry

    It may take a few days for your photograph to dry out completely. Check it occasionally. Remove the parchment paper and let the blotting paper absorb more moisture. Give it enough time to become very very flat.

    The result will be an heirloom group photograph you can scan, restore, share, frame, or use for further family history research.

    In a forthcoming post I'll show you how I scan panorama group photos with the Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner and with the Epson Perfection V500 and use stitching software to recreate the original long image.

     

    Disclaimer: 

    This DIY project worked for me; but I can't guarantee you will have the same results. Please use caution and good judgement, and try it at your own risk.

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    Reader Comments (25)

    Thank you for the great post. I just acquired some documents, not photos, that were rolled tightly. So this post is timely.

    July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

    I really appreciate the time and effort that went into explaining the procedure. I have both of my grandmothers' high school diplomas, both with very ornate artwork, and of course have been stored rolled for 70+ years. Thanks for sharing.

    July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJody

    This is so helpful - I have several old photos still tightly rolled, plus a large old paper document hand-written with details of the family. My concern would be about the ink used in the document... it's impossible to scan in the tight roll, and I'm supposing that if I use barely room temp water it wouldn't affect the ink -?

    July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCelia Lewis

    Thanks for the great post. I did want to mention that if you have in-floor heat do not put the box on the floor as it will get warm and can cause condensation. (I learn this the hard way doing a different project.)

    July 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkdossett

    Good point kdosset about the nearby heat! Avoid heat registers or nearby heaters when situating your humidification chamber.

    Regarding ink on these old documents -- use good judgement about the water temp. It's humidity, not hot vapor that you want. It may take time with very brittle documents, but mine have always relaxed enough to be unrolled.

    July 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    Denise! I am SO happy you posted this amazing step-by-step guide. After we had talked about this at Jamboree, I did a little bit of research on the subject, but it was still a little complicated for me. This breaks it down to my level; much easier than the other articles I had read. Now I'm ready to go and do this same process.

    Oh, and thanks for mentioning the photo stitching software. I've been using a program that works great for my legal sized documents. I don't think many genealogists consider this option when scanning their documents and photos, so I'm happy you're bringing this to the public's attention.

    July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Ray

    Thank you for a great set of instructions! I have several school photo panoramas of my mother's grade school classes (early 1930s), and one long group shot of my grandfather and his fellow employees (probably early 1940s) that are so tightly rolled, I had despaired of ever being able to view and scan them. I can't wait to try this.

    July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

    This is great information. I have some very tightly rolled marriage certificates that I've been afraid to touch. Also, if you ever have the inclination, could you post something about repairing a photo with a broken corner. Not scan it (which I did before I broke the corner!) but the best way to put the two pieces together again. It's a photo about 1870-1880 on stiff thick paper?

    July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Yocom

    Thanks Carol. It sounds like you want advice on how to repair a broken photo. Good question. I have a few damaged photographs too. I will add the topic to my To Do list! Thank you for the suggestion.

    July 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    Denise, this is great! This method looks so do-able and even (dare I say) fairly easy. Such a clear explanation, too. I'm going to send this post to my niece.

    Recently I mailed to her a box of Stuff that belonged to my grandfather (her great-grandfather), because she feels a deep connection to that side of the family and she's much younger than I am. (In answer to the question I've learned to ask, "Who will take care of the Stuff when I'm gone?") One of the items is an award my great-grandfather got when he was chief clerk for the Commandant at the Navy Yard in Charleston during WWII. It is quite large, and seems permanently rolled -- I didn't even try to unroll it. My niece is a resourceful person and will probably handle these directions with dispatch!

    July 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMariann Regan

    I have used this on ~150 year old letters as well, which were on very thin paper folded in tight squares and then left to sit in a shoebox for almost a century. Unfolding them almost always resulted in cracks, until I started humidifying them (briefly) to relax the paper long enough for me to get it stretched out. An excellent technique and tip!

    July 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErica

    Mariann- I love the way you are already grooming your niece to be your Family Curator. It sounds like she is a wonderful candidate for the role. Be sure to tell her to drop me a note if she has questions!

    Erica- I am happy to hear another testimonial for this technique. Thanks so much. Isn't it cool to see these old documents just come to life under your hands?

    July 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    Denise,

    Thank you for this tutorial! I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/07/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-july-12-2013.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    July 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJana Last

    I have a couple of rolled up photos I've been wondering what to do with. Thanks for the great instructions!

    July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

    You're welcome, Kathy!

    July 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    Very timely as I work on all of my dad's old panoramic photos from the early 1930s. Thanks so much for posting this. I look forward to taking them from their currently rolled state to flat and being able to scan them (yes, with my Flip Pal as well).

    August 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLuana

    Glad to help Luana! Those vintage photos are great for this technique!

    August 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    I have several rolled up panoramics of the 'front' in WW1.
    The longest is about 6 feet - depth about 8 inches, they are obviously for artillery purposes .

    You simply would not believe the carnage - for miles on end, barely a tree, just the odd stumps here and there... no buildings, obviously mud and churned up earth.

    My father brought them home in 1918 but I don't suppose he looked at them for hundreds of years.

    Anyway, they need re-humidifying so I'm going to have a gp

    John

    October 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

    Those photos sound like real treasures. I hope you will scan them and then frame (behind UV glass with archival materials :<) ) I have found that panoramas were often ignored because they became so tightly rolled. Yours sound like especially interesting prints. Good luck.

    October 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    John,
    those WW1 panoramas sound very valuable actually. Have you considered speaking to the Imperial War Museum about them?
    JohnW

    November 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohnW

    Hi Denise,
    I really enjoyed reading your article on unrolling old pictures. I plan on trying this in the near future. I have but one question. You say to place 2 inches of room temperature water in the bottle of the container but don't say how high to place the rack over the water. Could you please comment on what the height should be. And also what size container I need for pictures that measure 8 x 10 and 10 x 18. Thanks in advance for your help in this matter.

    May 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Smith

    Michael - The rack needs to be high enough to keep the paper above the water line. Typical dish racks are about 6 to 8 inches high. This is fine. The container needs to be large enough to hold your document as it begins to relax and spread out. A panorama photo may be quite long but it won't completely unroll in the chamber, so 25-30 inches long should be adequate.

    Hope this helps. Denise

    May 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    This is brilliant! I am excited to try it. My grandmother passed on several items that are essentially useless because they are rolled so tight. Thank you

    June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

    Thank you so much--this is a super helpful and timely post. I'm going to try the technique today. I have several panoramic photos I want to unfurl, plus the marriage certificate of my great-grandparents. Love your blog--keep it coming!

    June 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPancho

    Great post Denise and thanks so much. I can't wait to try this. Where can I obtain the blotting paper? Are these available at a place like Michael's or Hobby Lobby? Thank you.

    July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

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