“Mom!”, the boy yelled. “Who are these people?”
She walked over to where her son sat on the floor, in front of the hall closet. Scattered around him were piles of aging photographs and scattered torn yellow envelopes, many with brittle and cracking negatives spilling their contents out onto the carpet. A shoe box in front of the boy contained several more envelopes and dozens of tiny black and white photographs.
“Oh. I forgot we had those. We found those when we cleaned out your father’s aunt’s house. Your father and I looked through them once, and we couldn’t identify anyone in them, either.”
“What should I do with them?”, the boy asked.
“Put them all back in the box,” she answered. “You might as well throw them away. No one will ever look at them.”
Ever since George Eastman started selling film and cameras, that has been the fate of most photographs. Ignoring the high cost, everyone began recording every moment of their lives with cameras. And the photos accumulated faster than anyone could or would look at them. The priceless relics of a forgotten past accumulated in boxes and albums which filled attics and closets until, inevitably, a relative tossed them all out. Only a minute fraction of photos are saved because of any historic significance.
The advent of digital photography has done little to change the fate of photographs. We take incredible numbers of photographs, almost none of which are worth keeping. I just checked my cell phone and it has 13,052 photos and 740 videos. I share an iCluttered® account with my wife, The Doc, who took most of the photos. Of the six photos she took today, one is of the grandkids, four feature cats, and the last, inexplicably, is a man in a chicken suit. I am not going to ask her why she saved the latter, but I am willing to bet that a century from now, if any of these photos still survive, it will be the feathered dude.
For over thirty years, my job had me maintaining and repairing computers, frequently because of a hard drive crashing. I’ve lost track of the times someone has begged me to save irreplaceable family photos. Curiously, even when I was able to save those photos, I can count on one hand the number of times that same person has asked me how to back up those priceless family memories.
Today, we take far more photos than previous generations did, but we probably preserve a smaller percentage of those photos. While various companies advertise perpetual storage in the cloud, none of the services has been in operation long enough to establish a track record, so I suspect that future inactive accounts will be deleted relatively quickly. While it is a common belief that anything published on the web is available in perpetuity, in practice, websites crash, servers are taken off line, and web hosting companies go out of business on a regular basis. When they vanish, so does their web content.
Photos usually vanish faster than the printed word—in part because thousands of words can be digitally stored in a fraction of the space required for a single photo. Happily, not all photographs are doomed to be lost. While writing this, I originally had intended to use the well-known tragic story of the Mathew Brady Glass plates, which have been believed lost by too many people who should have known better. (No, that is not a typo, he spelled his first name with a single 't'.)
During the Civil War, Brady employed teams of photographers to document the battles of the Civil War. Well, the word document may be a little strong, since on occasion Brady’s photographers staged some of the photos. It was a little difficult to capture action shots when the average exposure time of the photos was fifteen seconds. (If you think that is bad, consider that a generation earlier, daguerreotypes required the subject to remain motionless for twelve minutes! Now you know why no one is smiling in those old photos—you try sitting still with a smile on your face for twelve minutes.)
Among the collected photos are several that may be Mathew Brady, himself, but we’re not sure. Ironically, even Brady didn’t label all of his photos, and let’s face it, it is hard to tell one bearded man from another in a black and white photo. For reference, see the photo of President Grant (right).
After the war, Brady had amassed thousands of negatives—all on glass plates—which he stored in his studio in New York City. Somehow, Brady had also amassed a large number of unpaid bills during the same time, evidently by the simple method of not paying any of his creditors (which included his employees and landlord) during the war. It did not take long after the war for Brady to be forced into bankruptcy.
Countless history books record that Brady’s creditors sold the glass plates for scrap, with many being used to make greenhouses. Or, as Ken Burns put it in his documentary, The Civil War:
“Glass-plate negatives were often sold to gardeners for the glass itself. In the years immediately following Appomattox, the sun slowly burned the filmy image of the war from countless greenhouse gardens all across the country, as if the memories might be erased.”
A few history books even went a step farther, recording that during the first World War, a shortage of glass caused the dismantling of those greenhouses in order to manufacture the glass view plates in military gas masks. The mental image of a doughboy watching a battle through the dim ghostly outline of the dead of Antietam is disturbing.
I will confess, I’ve even repeated the story of those greenhouses in my classroom a few times myself. Just about every historian has heard the story. And like quite a few stories that everyone knows, sometimes what we all know is wrong.
First, the cost of glass window panes was already fairly low by the Civil War. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cost of flat glass panels was so prohibitive that Great Britain used the tax on window glass as a proxy for an income tax, since only the rich could afford a house big enough to have a significant number of large windows. By the middle of the century, the manufacturing cost of glass fell by more than 50%, encouraging the use of windows for winter lighting, so England dropped the tax.
If a gardener had wanted to build a greenhouse, it would have been fairly silly to use the relatively thin glass sheets used by photographers. Since the dimensions of the glass negatives were relatively small, whatever savings the gardener might realize from salvaged glass would be lost from the need for extensive framing to hold all the small glass pieces.
Second, almost all of Brady’s negatives are accounted for. As he went bankrupt, the historical value of the negatives was recognized by nearly everyone. At one point, Mark Twain told the photographer that if he hadn't been already busy publishing the memoirs of President Grant, he would have entered into a business arrangement with Brady to sell the negatives.
As it happened, Brady did find a buyer—the United States government bought them. While many of the plates were damaged in shipping, they eventually found a home. The taxpayers now own them.
So, contrary to popular belief, the sun did not bleach away the images while the glass plates were part of greenhouses. No, the images were still lost because the chemical coating slowly faded away due to oxidation while the plates were in some vast government storage facility. But, don’t worry, Top Men are working on the problem while the plates are ark-ived.