Late 1800s cabinet card with albumen print
affixed to a cardboard mount. The albumen print has the typical
soft, sepia tones.
Popularly used: 1850s-1890s, though rare examples are
found that date to the early 1900s.
While there were other photographic processes in the 1800s,
the albumen print was by far the most common form of paper photograph.
Most 1860s-90s paper photographs are albumen. Even non-collectors
associate horse-and-buggy and Old West images with the soft,
sentimental tones that were produced by the albumen process.
Except for modernized versions used by a few advanced art
photographers, the albumen process is as obsolete as the Model
T car. It hasn't been used commercially for nearly a century,
having long ago been replaced by more advanced technology.
During its 1800s century heyday, the albumen process was used
by a wide range of photographers and for a wide range of photos.
It was used by famous photographers and unknown small town studios.
It was used to make the priceless photo hung today in a Paris
or New York museum and many of the photos in you or your neighbor's
family collection. This means that by studying the cabinet card
of your great great uncle or that $2 cabinet you bought at a
flea market, you are also studying the qualities of the thousands
dollar 1880s Joseph Hall baseball cabinet card and the Robert
E. Lee Civil War portrait.
The albumen process was time-consuming and difficult compared
to modern photography. Most practitioners were well-trained professionals
with a working knowledge of chemistry. Except for a few technically
gifted and wealthy hobbyists, there were no amateur photographers
as in the 20th century.
The process required a unique kind of chemically treated paper
that was mostly imported from France and Germany. Photography
is a chemical process and the photographer couldn't use any old
writing paper he got at the local dime store. Only a few factories
in the world made albumen paper. This is lucky for us today,
because this albumen paper has distinct qualities that are usually
straightforward to identify.
One of the distinct qualities of 1800s albumen prints is that
they are on super thin paper. The paper was so thin and delicate
that the prints had to be mounted. This means that the photographic
print was pasted to a heavy backing. Usually the backing is a
sheet of cardboard, but albumen prints can also be found mounted
in or on books, programs and other items. The mount is typically
larger than the albumen print. The picture at the beginning of
this chapter clearly shows how the albumen print was affixed
to a larger cardboard mount.
Albumen photographs were made in a wide range of sizes and
styles, often related to the era that they were made. The mount
can range from 1x1 inches to over 20 x 20 inches. The typical
sizes are the carte de visite or CDV (a bit bigger than a driver's
license) and the cabinet card (a larger version of a the CDV).
It was expensive and difficult to make large albumen photos.
The largest sizes, say around 15x15" and larger, were usually
made for special occasions. A mammoth baseball team photo may
have been displayed in the club house, town hall or been given
to a player or manager.
For all sizes, the mount is typically rectangular, but can
come in other shapes. The mounts come in a variety of colors
and with different text and designs. The color and design help
the historian assign a general date, as different styles typically
came from specific eras.
The albumen images are usually well aged. This includes the
common sepia or yellowish tone, often along with fading of the
image details in areas and foxing (brown or reddish age spots).
Particularly due to different storage, the severity and type
of aging will vary. For collectors, albumen photos are best stored
away from light, excessive heat and humidity. An example of excessive
heat is storing them next to a radiator. When originally made,
albumen images were not sepia but closer to a grey. You will
sometimes find examples that were well stored and retain these
colors. Albumen images are usually glossy.
Many albumen images have very fine web-like pattern of cracking.
This is often seen up close with the naked eye. Sometimes a normal
magnifying glass or loupe is needed. The cracking, which does
not appear on all albumen prints, can be throughout the entire
image or in sections.
One of the keys to authenticating albumen prints is examining
the image area under a microscope, preferably of 50x or better
power. Unlike with the later gelatin silver prints or common
modern color photos, the paper fibers can be seen on the albumen
print. It takes some practice, but with experience it's not difficult
to view the paper fibers with a microscope of 50 or more power.
When judging the authenticity of an expensive albumen photograph
I always take my magnifying glass and look for paper fibers in
There are some other scarcer types of photographic prints
where the fibers can be seen. These don't have the same colors
or other image qualities of albumen prints. Further, all of these
are antique or high end processes. The salt print, where the
fibers can be seen, was used before the albumen prints. The scarce
platinotype, where the fibers can be seen, was largely discontinued
before WWII. So, one way or the other, if you see the paper fibers
on your 19th century photograph, it's a good sign.
Though rare, it is possible to find 1880s albumen prints that
are pink (by far the most common), blue, green, yellow and other
bright colors. The process to add dye to the albumen paper was
invented at this time. This dye process often left underdeveloped
or otherwise less than stellar images.
Some albumen prints have a distinct effect called 'silvering.'
Silvering is when it appears as if the silver has come to surface
of the image. If it exists, it is more noticeable at the edges
and in the dark areas of the image, and when viewed at a specific
angle to the light. If you change the angle of the photo to a
light source, the silvering will become stronger and darker,
sometimes disappearing. It can range in intensity.
Sometimes it is only revealed under close examination when
holding the photo nearing a 180 degree to a light. Silvering
appears on some other types of photographs, most notable the
gelatin silver. Important for collectors, silvering is an aging
process. In simple words, a photograph with natural silvering
wasn't made yesterday.
Foxing, age spots and overall yellowing common
to albumen prints. Foxing is often heavier than this, and can
appear on the mount as well.
Albumen paper is extremely thin. The above image also shows a
close-up example of foxing.
Early 1900s gelatin-silver prints (see next chapter) are often
mistaken for albumen prints. Early gelatin silver prints often
have an albumen-like sepia tone and can be mounted to a cardboard
backing. Except for some early circa 1890s examples, the gelatin-silver
print is identified as the paper fibers in the image cannot be
seen under the microscope.
If the photograph is dated to the early 1900s by the image
subject or mount style, the photograph probably is gelatin-silver,
In the 1890s, albumen prints and gelatin prints were roughly
about equal in popularity. For a photo you are certain is from
this period, it is not a big deal if you cannot tell if the print
is albumen or gelatin silver, as there will likely be no difference
Albumen prints are also sometimes mistaken for the earlier
and much rarer salt print.
Modern Albumen Prints
Today, a few artists and hobbyists make modernized versions
of the albumen print. These are easy to distinguish from 1800s
version. Since the photos are made recently and often sold by
the proud photographer, the photos are usually correctly dated.
The modern albumen prints are on much thicker paper, lack the
aging of the old versions, are usually not mounted and will often
fluoresce brightly under a black light (see chapter 25). The
modern artists like the tone and techniques of the old albumen
prints, but are not trying to make prints that will be mistaken
for 1800s prints. In particular, they've modified the chemicals
and paper used so the photos don't have the 1800s aging and deterioration
problems. Their object is to duplicate the tones of the albumen
print, but not the foxing, fading and discoloration. Modern albumen
prints are much rarer than the 1800s versions and are the artistic
types of photos you will find in art galleries and museums, rather
than the eBay sports memorabilia categories
Summary of Important Qualities of the Early Albumen Print
* Almost all were produced in the 19th century. A few examples
can be found in the early 1900s. Most 1800 paper photographs
are albumen prints.
* Due to the delicate nature of the paper, albumen prints
had to be mounted, meaning the albumen print had to be pasted
to a heavy backing like a sheet of cardboard.
* Examples larger than the cabinet card are scarce, the larger
the more limited in number. Examples around 20x20" exist
but are rare.
* Albumen paper is very thin.
* Images can be found in grey, but are typically sepia in
tone, often with foxing, areas of fading and other wear.
* Images are often glossy
* Many have a very fine web like pattern of cracks in the
image surface. Can often be viewed with naked eye, but sometimes
a normal magnifying glass is needed.
* Some images have silvering
* Under microscope, paper fibers can be seen in image. If
the paper fibers can be seen, that is one of the strongest signs
that the 19th century photograph is genuine.
(c) david rudd cycleback, cyclback.com
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