A black and white photo from 1947. One man is seated, with clothes, in an outside bathtub. A second man is pretending to scrub his back, and a third man is pretending to pour water from a pitcher.

50 Years of Missouri Photos

A client with aging parents is working to catalog and store family photographic memories while her mother and father are still able to remember details about various images. When she showed me the family albums of her parents, the memories of my own family’s brown and blue albums from the same time period came rushing back. 

The look and feel of the client’s albums were familiar to me. Both of our sets of albums (early-mid 1900s) were rectangular (roughly 11 by 16”), had sturdy covers, and were held together with decorative string at one end; the string fed through two locations at the edge of each page, binding the album. Photo mounting corners were used to attach prints to black paper; the album paper had the same texture as construction paper. Sometimes white pencil was used to document photo details on the black album paper.  

Three photo albums stacked. The have ties at one end. A white one is on top and is untied.

Photo albums popular in the mid-twentieth century.

Where to begin?

The client and I met so that I could see her albums and advise her on next steps. We discussed scanning, removing the photos from the albums or not, best practices for long-term storage (i.e., using acid-free materials), and options for documenting details about each image.

The client was certain that she wanted to remove the photos from the albums (which she decided to do herself), but she also wanted to capture the text notes throughout the albums as well as any additional details her parents might remember. She interviewed her parents over a series of visits out of state, took notes about the various pictures (dates, occasions, names of others she did not recognize), and documented everything in a spreadsheet.  

She utilized a numbering system to coordinate the prints and her notes. For writing on the backs of prints, a pencil such as the Stabilo-All is recommended.  

Three black pencils, two red, two white, and one pink pencil sharpener.

Three colors of Stabilo-All archival pencils, safe to use for writing on backs of photographs.

These special pencils won’t cause indentations that can appear on the front side of the print and be picked up by a scanner. They are sold at art supply stores and various archival products companies and come in black, red, and white. Photos from the early 1900s are often black on the back, so the white can be useful for numbering and dating such prints. I did have to invest in my first pencil sharpener in years.

Select Storage

She elected to purchase a large archival box and two large envelopes from The Photo Organizers. The materials are acid-free and are designed by photo organizers, for photo organizers.

The 13.5 x 16 x 6″ box will accommodate 2,400 prints up to 5 x 7”. The client will use the oversize envelopes to store 8 x 10” images and other related materials.


Ultimately, this client elected to digitize only 101 images. She provided me with envelopes for three time periods and one oversize image envelope; a sampling of images from each envelope appear below.

  • 1904 – 1930:  A family grocery store
  • 1931 – 1945:  Family time
  • 1946 – 1954:  Fun with friends
  • Large prints:  Dancing
Three couples are shown dancing. The women hold their full skirts in their right hands. Their left arms are over their male partners' shoulders. The male partners have their right arms around the waists of their female partners.

Four couples dancing, fall 1950.

The scanning process includes cropping and color enhancement. Cropping removes the white borders that appeared around most images for much of the twentieth century. This project consisted entirely of black & white photos; color enhancement of grayscale scanning can further enrich photos by distinguishing the blacks, grays, and whites in an image. There were only a handful of occasions while scanning these 101 images where I elected to turn off the color enhancement.  

The pencils mentioned above can also be useful to mark the backs of prints, indicating they have been scanned (with an “S,” for example). This might be useful, since the client elected to scan only a selected number of prints during this phase of her project.

File Away

The client is beginning to place her historical photos into the archival box. She is happy with the design of the box; it offers sufficient structure for organization but also gives her flexibility to place, label, and rearrange items. She did inquire about envelopes to protect unusually small images, to further segment items behind a single tab divider, or to store related (i.e., non-photo) memorabilia. I recommended these envelopes from Archival Methods; I have used them for my own family photo collection.

The top envelope is 4x6 with a grid for labeling (date, subject, place). The bottom file folder is for negatives strips and is plain white.

A 4×6 archival envelope (top) and negative file folder (bottom).

Next Steps

The client has inquired about additional scanning, so I know she is considering the digitization of more images. Her approach, as outlined above, was to begin with a limited number of scans – a reasonable way to approach a project when you are still finding your way. She was able to see the quality of the scans, share them with others in the family, assess what amount of editing might be required for any images she wants to enlarge or use in photo books, and then evaluate whether further investment (time and/or money) was warranted. 

“This is just wonderful. I’ve looked through the photos online and am so pleased.  These are treasures, and I can’t wait to share them with others in my family.”

~ Rebecca A., North Chesterfield, VA (June 19, 2018)


All images are used with permission from the client.

One thought on “50 Years of Missouri Photos

  1. Rebecca Anderson says:

    Wow, Sharyn! You summed up the process so well! It has been such a pleasure to work with you, not to mention a learning experience. It can be overwhelming to consider those albums or boxes of old family photos you’ve got stacked in your closet. The trick is to get started! I also recommend finding an archivist like Sharyn. Someone who can walk you through the process – break it down into doable (and affordable) chunks, and help you stay motivated. Thank you, Sharyn.


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