Have You Seen Glass Plate Negatives?

 How do you handle and store them? Is it possible to copy them? 

Example of a casual family photograph taken by an amateur photograph, Jay Cooke Family Collection, Ohio Historical Society.

Example of a casual family photograph taken by an amateur photograph, Jay Cooke Family Colleciton, Ohio Historical Society.

Glass plates were the first base for photographic negatives. In use from the 1850s through the 1920s, they were used by both amateur and professional photographers; photographers working in studios, itinerant photographers and industrial photographers; photographers employed to shoot babies and photographers employed to shoot mine workers.  In the Ohio Historical Society archives there are extensive collections of glass plate negatives.  With appropriate and careful handling and storage these visual resources can be preserved and made accessible for generations to come.

Types of Glass Negatives

There are two types of glass negatives, wet collodion negatives and dry plate negatives. Wet collodion negatives were introduced in the United States about 1855. They are distinguished by wavy lines along the edges of plates because they were hand coated by photographers. Silver gelatin dry plate negatives replaced wet collodion negatives in the late 1880s and remained in use until the 1920s. Dry plate negatives were more convenient for photographers because they could purchase prepared plates from manufacturers in standard sizes.  Determining if plates are wet collodion negatives or dry plate negatives is useful for dating the images. For the purpose of handling and storage, the two types of glass plate negatives can be managed with the same procedures.

Physical Handling

Like all photographic media glass plate negatives are susceptible to damage from finger prints. However, wearing gloves, particularly cotton gloves, to handle glass plates reduces the manual dexterity necessary to handle glass safely. Glass is slippery and old glass can crack and chip easily. Some conservators recommend wearing latex gloves when working with glass plates. Others suggest washing your hands thoroughly prior to handling glass plate negatives and frequently during the course of your work. You should always hold the plates with both hands on the edges.


Glass plate negatives are often found stored in wooden cases, stacked in the commercial dry plate negative boxes in which photographers purchased them, or in old, acidic envelopes. None of these containers are acceptable for long term storage.  The plates need to be removed from these enclosures, but frequently there is information describing the images – like dates, locations and photographer’s names – recorded on them.  Archivists typically record this information on the new negative enclosures.

Glass plate negatives must be stored individually in acid free paper enclosures. Plates that are not enclosed are in danger of the emulsion being scratched, emulsion being pulled away from the glass, and portions of the image being lost. The best choice of enclosure for glass plates is a four flap negative envelope. These envelopes completely enclose the plates. Putting glass plates in envelopes or folders with open sides leave the plates vulnerable to slipping out. Flaking and peeling emulsion is a common problem with glass plate negatives. Pulling plates in and out of envelopes or sleeves poses the risk of catching and tugging on emulsion that is peeling away from the glass base. Four flap envelopes can be opened and plates inspected or removed without the plates rubbing against the enclosure.  This style of envelope can be purchased from archival suppliers in standard sizes.

When you are rehousing glass plate negatives you may find plates that are fused together. This is especially common when plates have been stacked directly on top of one another and stored in humid conditions with fluctuating temperatures. Do not attempt to pry the plates apart by applying pressure because there is great risk of cracking the plates. Consult a conservator to find out if separating the plates is possible

Boxing and Shelving

Broken glass plate depicting Walter Black of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.  Conservators were able to make prints from the plate.

Broken glass plate depicting Walter Black of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. Conservators were able to make prints from the plate.

It is usually recommended that glass plate negatives stand upright in archival boxes. When plates are stacked horizontally unnecessary pressure is put on the plates at the bottom of the pile. Plates should not shift or slide in their boxes. If they do not fit the box snugly, the space can be filled with acid free boards cut the same size as the negatives. For additional support, you can also put acid free boards in between the plates.  Plates should be boxed with plates that are the same size.  Do not box 4×5 inch plates with 5×7 inch plates or 5×7 inch plates with 8×10 inch plates. Smaller plates housed with large plates will not fully support the surface area of the larger plates.

Cracked or chipped plates should be stored horizontally in between sheets of acid free board in between the plates to provide additional support. Plates that are in multiple pieces are best stored in sunken mats that hold the pieces in place. Boxes that contain broken plates must be labeled on the outside to indicate that the contents are fragile and the boxes must remain horizontal. Unless plates have shattered into countless pieces, keeping broken plates is worthwhile because it is still possible to scan the plates and preserve the images.

Glass plate negatives are heavy! Do not overfill boxes with glass plate negatives. It is much better to house a glass plate collection in more small boxes, than fill a large box with glass plates.(Bahnemann) Never put glass plate negatives in boxes that are not in good condition. The weight of glass plates could easily cause the bottom to fall out of a box that is not sturdy.  Archival suppliers make boxes designed specifically for glass plate storage. Creating box labels that say something to the affect of “Glass Plates – Handle Carefully” is a good way to alert staff that they are about to pick up a box that contains weighty and fragile material.

It is not recommended that boxes of glass plate negatives be stored on mobile shelving.(Conserve O Gram 1997, p.3) The motion of the shelves can cause the plates to shift in their boxes and increase the risk of breakage. Additionally, the height of the shelves on which boxes holding glass plates are placed should be considered. It may be awkward for staff to lift heavy boxes from the top or bottom shelves. Boxes containing glass plate negatives should never be stacked on or under other boxes.(Bahnemann)

Providing Access

It is best to minimize the need for physical handling of glass plate negatives. For many years making contact prints on fiber based archival photo paper was the standard method for providing access to glass plate negative collections. Maintaining the equipment and purchasing the supplies for traditional contact printing has become difficult and expensive in the age of digital photography. Fortunately, glass plate negatives have proven to be a media that is well suited for scanning. The tonal range and incredible detail that glass plate negatives are noted for can be captured in high resolution tiff files. Be sure the scanner bed is clean and it will fully support the surface area of the negatives. Always place negatives on the scanner bed emulsion side up.   Once glass plate negatives are scanned they can be printed or made available online and the original plates returned to storage.

Employees of the Lechner Mining Machine Company from the Jeffrey Mining Collection at the Ohio Historical Society.

Employees of the Lechner Mining Machine Company from the Jeffrey Mining Collection at the Ohio Historical Society.


Even in less than ideal enclosures and storage conditions, thousands of glass plate negatives have remained intact for decades. With careful handling, consistent storage procedures, and employing common sense archivists can ensure that they survive for many more.

L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

This entry was posted in collections, Conservation and Preservation, Photograph Collections. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Have You Seen Glass Plate Negatives?

  1. I never saw Glass Plate Negatives..How they look and what are they?The motion of the shelves can cause the plates to shift in their boxes and increase the risk of breakage…It seems to be a periodic blog..

  2. I have a 1898 vici “Sunart” camera, which takes 6 1/2″ x 8″ glass negs..Can I still purchase glass plates this camera film? I’m guessing I could modify it to take sheet film but would prefer to use the plates.. It’s in mint condition and I’d like to put back in action. I just digitized 150 turn of the century negs (1912) shot with this camera…beautifull…

    • ohiohistory says:

      I am doubtful that new dry plate negatives are being manufactured. You might be able to find old plates that were not exposed and they could still work. Something like that could turn up in an antique store or on eBay. I have handled many boxes of glass plates and do not believe I have ever come across any that were unused. Prior to buying manufactured plates, photographers prepared the plates themselves. There are some artistic and industrious photographers still doing this with modern recipes for coating the plates. Here is a link to a discussion: http://photo.net/black-and-white-photo-film-processing-forum/00WHIb. If there is a college near you with a fine arts program in photography, they might have someone who has tried this.

      L.Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

      • moncionphotog@nrtco.net says:

        Thanks… I’ll research that option…michael

        On Wednesday 22/05/2013 at 12:41 pm, Ohio Historical Society Collections Blog wrote: > > ohiohistory commented: “I am doubtful that new dry plate negatives are > being manufactured. You might be able to find old plates that were not > exposed and they could still work. Something like that could turn up > in an antique store or on eBay. I have handled many boxes of glas” >

  3. DAVID ORRELL says:


    • Gordon Dale says:

      I have just found this on the blog… A friend of mine has some glass negs and I simply scanned them into a photo editor and simply used the Inverse or Negate to provide a B&W image for printing. Adjust the curve for best contrast and exposure

      • Gordon:
        I have digitized over 150 glass negatives dating back to the mid 1890s. The resolution is great. I am willing do the transition for your friend however I am in Canada…you know that land just north of you …lol. I’m not really that far away. I’m in Pembroke Ontario along the Ottawa River just up from the capital of Canada, Ottawa. If you don’t have any luck where you are, you now know where I am. If you need any other advice regarding this issue please feel free to call/email me any time. I really enjoy reading Ohio History Connection. All the best…Michael Moncion 613 732 3043

  4. Cassie says:

    Can anyone recommend a scanner to scan glass plate negatives? They were my grandfather’s, roughly 4″ X 5″ to 8″ X 10″ in size.

    • ohiohistory says:


      At OHS we typically purchase Epson scanners. However, it is not a particular brand of scanner, but certain features that make scanning glass plate negatives possible. First you need a scanner with a bed that is large enough to fully support both sizes of negatives. Second you need a transparency adapter that will shine light through top of the negative, as well as the bottom. We have found that glass negatives can scratch scanner beds. To prevent this, our digital projects staff has been loading them in negative holders.

      L. Wood

  5. David says:

    >> Flaking and pealing emulsion … emulsion that is pealing away
    PEELING, not “pealing.”

  6. David DiTommaso says:

    Can someone here answer a couple of questions? I am writing a book and a small piece of it concerns a portrait photo being taken by a professional photographer in the early 1890’s.

    1) when the plate is inserted into the camera, isn’t it housed in some sort of frame made of wood or metal?
    2) how heavy is this plate – including its wood or metal frame, if any?

    If someone could answer these questions, I would be eternally grateful!

    Thank you!

    • ohiohistory says:


      Yes, the plates were placed in wood or metal frames. Glass plates varied in size. A plate measuring 8×10 inches would weigh more than a smaller plate. An individual plate in a holder probably weighs less than a pound. Boxes with multiple plates can be very heavy.

      L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

    • michael moncion says:

      The best way in my opinion is to digitize them using an SLR. Build an A frame box (like a pitched roof top). I would suggest white foamcore. This will give great flash spread inside the box. Cut out a rectangular hole (8×10 inches horizontally) on one side and attach a sheet of glass to the outside to cover the hole. Make the hole as close to the bottom as possible to avoid a shadow and attach a one inch piece of glass to the bottom of the glass to which will make a shelf to rest the glass negative.Cut a similar hole on the other pitch but slightly bigger and place a diffusion material like a sheet of paper over the hole or a piece of fogged plastic.. You may have to modify the intensity of the light by doubling up on the diffusion. Place a speed light flash facing the back hole, place a negative on the glass, position the camera and take the shot. You will have a negative digital file ready to photoshop it into reality. Good luck…Michael Moncion

  7. Pingback: What are Glass Plate Negatives? | scribbleknit

  8. I discovered glass plates when making a purchase on eBay of items related to my hobby of raising Fancy Pigeons. I wanted to know what era these plates were in use and your works gave me exactly that information. Thanks

  9. phil George says:

    Are there any concerns with emulsion flaking being hazardous? That is, does it pose a health risk?

    • ohiohistory says:


      I have never read about any potential health hazards from handling negatives with flaking emulsion. In my own experience handling glass negatives in physical condition that varies from excellent to terrible I have never experienced any side affects, other than being very careful not to cut myself. The emulsion on glass negatives is relatively chemically stable. When stored in dry conditions with minimal fluctuation in temperature and handled with care, glass negatives are one of the most stable photographic formats. Film negatives on nitrate and acetate bases are the negatives that off gas when they begin to deteriorate.

      Thank you,
      L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

    • L. Wood:
      I recently digitized 150 glass negatives dating back to 1893 to 1910. They were 6 inches by 8 inches in size. They work shot with a Sunart camera made in Rochester. The customer gave the camera in return for my work.
      Now, down to business…Make yourself a three side box at least 12×10 inches. I used a product called foamcore to make the walls.The foam core must be white on both sides. I then cut out a hole in the front one big enough to show the full negative. I put a piece of glass over the hole. (this wall would be on a angle like an easel. I then put a ledge of glass below the to rest the negative over the hole. On the back of of the box I cut a larger a larger hole. Place a flash near the back of the hole sync it to the digital slr camera. Place the neg on the front glass and take a photo of the neg. Make sure you use a manual exposure setting. The flash will go off bouncing the light through the box and give you the like needed to get an image. You will need to experiment with shutter speeds and aperture setting to get a proper exposure. From there you need to take the image through photoshop to convert it to a positive. You will need to adjust the color, contrast and balance to tweek it to you liking. Most negs will give off a blue hue so just desaturate back to a black and white image….Have fun…Michael Moncion, Pembroke Ontario Canada

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