Early 1900s gelatin silver real photo postcard. Exhibits the
steely yet subtle tones common to gelatin silver prints. The
bottom has light silvering that helps establish that photograph
Commonly used late 1890s to today
Gelatin silver prints were by far the most common form of
black and white photograph from the late 1890s to today. If you
own a 1930s movie still photo or a 1950s wirephoto, you own a
gelatin silver photograph. If you go to a museum exhibit of photographs
by famous early 20th century photographers, many to most will
likely be gelatin silver prints. Those 1940s black and white
snapshots and real photo postcards in your family albums are
more than likely gelatin silver.
Early gelatin silver prints
While gelatin silver photographs were commonly used for many
years and are made today, early examples have distinct qualities
that help the collector to identify their old age. With hands
on experience the collector will rarely be fooled by a modern
reprint of a turn of the 20th century subject. The early photos
have a distinct, antique look and feel. In a pile of antique
photos, the recently made photo will usually stand out like a
Many gelatin silver photographs have stark black and white
images, distinct to the sepia tones of an albumen print. However,
many vintage gelatin silver images are found with sepia tones,
sometimes closely resembling 1800s albumen prints. This sepia
tinge is most often caused by the toning of the paper, but was
sometimes intentionally created by the photographer.
As exemplified by the photo of at the start of this chapter,
many original vintage gelatin silver images have rich and subtle
tones, sometimes with hints of blue or green. Many modern reprints
stand out like sore thumbs, because the image is too starkly
black and white.
Though not as thin as albumen paper, early gelatin silver
paper is thin. The earlier, the thinner. Gelatin silver paper
from the late 1890s is nearly as thin as albumen paper. The modern
'double weight' paper was not popularly introduced until around
the 1930s. An example of double weight paper is the typical modern
autographed 8x10 photo. The notable exception to the early thin
paper rule are real photo postcards, which are sometimes on heavier
Most vintage gelatin silver paper (as seen on the back of
the photo) will be off white and often with toning and foxing.
Counter to intuition, however, the earliest examples typically
have bright white paper, though still with occasional foxing,
soiling and other discoloration. The earliest paper was handmade
without wood pulp. Wood pulp, introduced to later photo paper
production, is what makes later photos and newspapers turn brown.
The earliest handmade gelatin silver paper was naturally white
and, since there was no wood pulp, did not tone with age. This
means that you should not be distressed if the paper on your
1903 photo is so much brighter than on your 1920s photos.
1910s photo showing the sepia tones possible
with early gelatin silver prints.
Many early gelatin silver prints are mounted in similar fashion
to albumen prints. Many to most are unmounted (plain paper photograph
with no cardboard backing). This means it is possible to find
a 1908 gelatin silver photo both mounted as a cabinet card and
unmounted like a modern snapshot.
Unlike albumen prints, the paper fibers in the gelatin silver
print cannot be seen under a microscope. The gelatin silver photos
have a thin layer of gelatin on the front image area. The gelatin
was used to hold the necessary photographic chemicals to the
paper. While transparent, the gelatin obscures the paper fibers
from view (On some early, circa 1890s examples, the fibers can
barely be seen). When viewing under a microscope, you may see
the uneven surface of the gelatin. With experience this surface
is easily distinguished from paper fibers.
When judging the age of a gelatin silver print, one of the
key and straight forward things to look for is silvering. Most,
though not all, early gelatin silver prints have some degree
of silvering. Silvering can sometimes be found on photos from
as late as the 1950s (these of course are many decades old themselves),
but silvering is most commonly and distinctly found on early
gelatin silver photographs. Silvering is less likely to appear
on photos with underexposed images.
If you are considering buying a $500 1915 photograph and the
image has silvering, that's a very good sign.
Gelatin silver prints with white borders usually date from
the 1910s and later. Before, the photos almost always have full
circa 1920 gelatin silver print with heavy
silvering in the dark areas. This silvering helps establish the
photo as old.
Summary of Early Gelatin Silver Prints
* Most 1900s black & white photos are gelatin silver prints.
* Gelatin silver prints could be mounted (like a cabinet card)
or unmounted. Most are unmounted.
* It was easier to make larger sizes than with the albumen process,
so oversized gelatin silver prints are more common. Extremely
large sizes still receive a premium.
* The paper is thin, though not as thin as albumen paper
* The images can be black and white or with a sepia tone. The
images are often rich and subtle in tone.
* The turn of the century gelatin silver paper can be bright
white, in later years it is usually off white to heavily toned.
* The images commonly have silvering. Silvering is an aging process,
which means a photo with silvering is old.
* Many unmounted photos have the photographer's stamp, which
helps date and authenticate the photograph.
* White borders strongly suggests that the photo is from the
1910s or after.
* Unlike with the albumen print, the paper fibers cannot be seen
in the image area under a microscope.
Later to Recent Gelatin Silver Prints
By the 1930s-40s, gelatin silver prints were often on much
thicker paper. Almost all modern photos are on substantially
thicker and sturdier paper than the first gelatin silver prints.
Gelatin silver prints from the 1930s-40s, and sometimes even
into the 1950s, can have light silvering that shows it's old.
Starting in the late 1960s, resin coated paper was introduced.
Resin coating gives the front and back of the photo paper a smooth
and plasticy feel. Though the resin coating proves a photograph
is modern, some modern photos still have the traditional fibery/papery
back. Older gelatin silver prints will often have light to heavy
toning showing its age. Recent photos are often distinctly bright
Within the Post World War II era it is not always easy to
judge the exact age of the paper and image. The difference between
1950s and 1960s photo paper, for example, is minor at best. The
stamps, tags or other marks on the photo's back are often necessary
to date a modern photo. Also, photos can be judged as later generation
by their image quality and photobranding. As shown in a later
chapter, black lights can be used identify many modern photos.
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