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Mystery Images: Glass Plate Negatives from The Leelanau Historical Museum Archive
photographic prints by Howard Tuthill / click any photo for larger view

Glass Plate Negatives
A group of women in a Leelanau orchardAmong other photographic materials, the Leelanau Historical Museum cares for glass plate negatives. These are approximately 1/8" thick, coated on one side with emulsion made of gelatin and metallic silver.

Photographers began exposing glass plate negatives in their cameras in the 1850s allowing them to produce multiple copies of positive prints rather than single, positive images. The first glass plate negatives were wet collodion negatives. Each piece of glass was coated by the photographer, immediately exposed and processed. This is the method by which pioneer photographers William Henry Jackson and Matthew Brady created powerful images of the western frontier and the Civil War.

Dry-plate glass negatives were first manufactured in the 1880s and some commercial photographers continued to use them until after WW II. These ready-made negatives could be stored before use greatly simplifying photography.

Beginning in 1888, light sensitive emulsions were all put on flexible material or film. Much easier to use and store, film negatives were manufactured in standard size sheets and continuous rolls. Roll film, first manufactured by George Eastman, paved the way for small handheld cameras and the use of photography by the masses.

Mystery Images From the Collection
These wonderful photographs were made from black and white glass plate negatives from the Leelanau Historical Museum Archives. Prints made from large format glass negatives (4 x 5" and 5 x 7") are especially valued. This format provided photographers with more planar space and gave them a greater degree of control in the darkroom. Study them closely -- you will be intrigued by the rich detail in these images.

It is believed these negatives were made in the 1920s in Leelanau County. Unfortunately, no information on their source or content was found with them. Any suggestions you may have regarding the identity of the subjects and locations are welcomed. You can email the Leelanau Historical Museum at or visit them in Leland, Michigan.

A Boy Sitting on a StumpPickers in an OrchardThree Children with Baby Carriage
A Group of PeopleAn Elderly CoupleA Man with a String of Fish
A woman on a stumpA Richly Furnished Room

Caring for Glass Plate Negatives
Do you have glass plate negatives in your family archives? These images from times past should be carefully preserved. In addition to caring for them, we suggest you have photographic prints made from them for long term preservation of the images and enjoyment.

Glass plate negatives should be handled and stored with special care. The emulsion side of an exposed negative is a soft layer of gelatin in which a metallic silver image is suspended. While more inherently stable than modern color negatives, black and white glass negatives deteriorate over the years. Unprocessed chemicals in the emulsion, contamination from storage materials, dust, moisture, extreme fluctuations of temperature and relative humidity, mold, mildew and rough handling damage all photographic materials and especially fragile glass plate negatives.

Laura J. Quackenbush, Curator

The Collection, Use and Care of Historical Photographs, Robert Weinstein & Larry Booth.
Administration of PHotographic Collections, Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Gerald Munnofff & Margery Long.
Therese Mulligan, Curator of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York.

The images and many more can be found at the Leelanau Historical Museum in Leland, Michigan. Please visit their web site at for much more information about the museum and an online sample of its collection.

Copyright 2000 Leelanau Historical Society • All Rights Reserved.

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