Before the Film: Glass Negatives from the Archives

The film negative is iconic. But did you know that before cellulose film took over the photographic world, there was another major medium for photography? Although not the earliest form of negatives (which was actually paper), glass negatives were the most common method of creating a photographic negative. The first glass negatives were created on handmade glass that had to be cleaned and prepared onsite (including mixing chemicals) immediately before taking the photograph. Eventually, companies like Kodak created glass negatives with a gelatin-based emulsion that were ready-to-use, with machine-made and -cut glass already prepared with the light-sensitive materials that would be exposed to create the photograph. These negatives are of the latter variety- in fact, many of them appear to have been stored in the boxes in which they were purchased, as below:

Enjoy the images from the archives, and at the end find some suggestions on how best to preserve any glass negatives you may have or find in your own family archives!

Days on the Farm

Single Shots- Getting just the right pose

A Congregation, Congregating

Buildings and Explorations

Houses Near and Far

Handling and Care of Glass Negatives

Now that you’ve seen some examples of what can be contained in glass negatives, here are some guidelines on how to protect them if you come across any in your own family’s materials.

Safe Handling

When you need to handle the negative, wear gloves, preferably nitrile or a similar material. Cotton gloves do not give a good grip on the glass, so you are more likely to drop the negative if you are wearing them. Nitrile gloves protect the glass and emulsion from fingerprints and other damage from the oil on your hands, and also provide a small amount of protection if there are any sharp spots on the edge of the glass.

Do not use any form of liquid or cleaner on the negatives. The emulsion (the thin layer of material that sits on top of the glass and contains the actual image of the photograph) is fragile and can be damaged easily. As far as possible, avoid touching the emulsion at all- if there is dust that needs to be removed, use a bulb style duster to gently blow off the dust.

When storing glass negatives, it is important to protect them from damage caused by other negatives. Separating the negatives from each other with acid-free cardboard or thick paper stock helps ensure that the glass and emulsions aren’t damaged by scraping or rubbing against each other. The negatives can be stored on their edge or flat, but if storing on edge make sure to fit them snugly or create supports so that they cannot shift or fall over. However they are stored, make sure to label the box with a warning that it contains glass so that it doesn’t get handled roughly or dropped without realizing that the contents are fragile.

Have any questions, or have any glass negatives that you would like to digitize? Contact the Sherman Room by email at or phone at 419-521-3115!


  1. Northeast Document Conservation Center. “Session 5: Care and Handling of Photographs.
  2. Canadian Conservation Institute. “Care of Black-and-White Photographic Glass Plate Negatives –
    Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 16/2
    .” September 14, 2017.

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