Every picture tells a story, and Victorian and Edwardian photograph albums have a wealth of tales to tell about the way our ancestors lived. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Collecting Antique Photographs

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Care & Conservation of Old Photographs

Glossary of photography terms used by auction and collectibles people - with examples.

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Old Photo Albums


 Every picture tells a story, and Victorian and Edwardian photograph albums have a wealth of tales to tell about the way our ancestors lived.

 Family albums have a long tradition. originally, they contained sketches and paintings family maxims and a record of births, marriages, deaths and other significant events. However, with the invention of photography in the 1830s, they slowly began to change and to become more popular.

 At first, only the wealthy could afford photographs. Daguerreotypes, named for their inventor, the Frenchman Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre, produced sharp, shining pictures that could - at a cost - be coloured by hand. The main problem with them was that they produced only one-off images; there was no negative that could be reprinted.

 In the 1850s, a new technique made it possible to run off many postcard-sized copies from one glass negative.

 These prints were known as cartes de visite and were, in fact, often used as calling cards. They were collected into albums alongside larger studio portraits known as cabinet prints.

Whatever the method, most photographs were, for technical reasons, taken in a studio. There was no question of a quick snap.

 The frozen, unsmiling expression seen on the faces of the sitters was not due to a desire to stand on their dignity; they had to hold their poses for a minute or more.

 Many photographers had chairs fitted with uncomfortable neck braces to hold the sitter's head steady.


 Short exposure times only became possible in ~ the 1870s, and in the 1880s an American, George Eastman, patented two inventions that would revolutionize photography, a multi-exposure, negative roll film and a hand-held camera.

 Both could be mass produced at a price to fit most pockets. As a result, the 1890s and 1900s saw a huge boom in amateur photography. It was an easy matter to record family events and to have several copies made.

 The nature of the photograph album changed accordingly. Professional studio portraits did not disappear from the scene completely, hut were complemented by informal shots taken by friends and relatives.

 The subject matter changed, too. Amateur photographers were not hidebound by the stiff conventions of the studio and its collection of props.

 They could fix a fleeting moment; triumph or disaster on the tennis court, modest poses by a seaside bathing machine, croquet on the lawn, bicycle trips into the countryside and family picnics with enough food to feed half the population of Clapham or Cheltenham.

 These charming pictures make it seem that Edwardian England basked in an endless, carefree summer. Before the 19th century, family portraits were painted in oils and the province of the rich. The invention of photography, though, made it possible to collect and save pictures of loved ones relatively cheaply.


 The easiest, most practical way to date an old photograph album is by the pictures it contains.

 One full of cartes de visite, cabinet prints and other studio portraits will almost certainly be Victorian, while an album that is chock-full of snapshots will be Edwardian or later. The photographs within them can be dated more precisely by their subjects; styles of clothing are a particularly good guide.

 Carte de visite portraits of famous people were made for commercial sale, and members of the Royal Family and other Victorian luminaries, such as Charles Dickens, can be found jostling with severe portraits of aunts and uncles in the family album. These can help put a date on an album.


 Most albums intended for photographs were bound like books. Tooled leather bindings were common and extremely handsome. Plush velvet was a slightly more down-market covering, but even this was often embroidered with a beautiful floral design. Brass or silver clasp and other metal decoration also add distinction to some covers.

 More unusual album covers were made of elaborately carved wood, with the design picked out in glowing gold, red or royal blue.

 Japanese-style albums mirrored the turn of-the-century fascination with all things oriental. Real or fake lacquer work and carved ivory figurines were often used to decorate these exotic pieces of work.

 Some albums have thick, stiff leaves with oval or rectangular windows cut in them so that the photographs can be slotted in.

 Others have thinner pages, like scrapbooks, and the photographs are either stuck down with glue or held in place by adhesive corner mounts. You may find that the photographs are cut into decorative shapes.

 The album pages were often decorated. In some, the pages or the frames had a simple gilt edging, while others had beautifully hand printed floral borders.

 Certain albums were made to be stood on a table rather than being tucked away in a drawer. Some of them were made like a folding screen, with metal hinges and frames, while others had a velvet cover and a mechanism that turned the pages so that the photographs were displayed in turn.

 Easel albums were ornately carved in wood and had a drop front which revealed the cabinet photographs it contained.


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