Let’s see by a show of hands how many have at least one box crammed full of old family photographs out in the garage, up in the attic, or down in the basement. Look at that. Hands going up all over the room.
I’m guessing that anyone over the age of 20 knows what I’m talking about. Old family photos. Most of us have boxes filled with modern color prints capturing every moment of our immediate family history. Or even an old trunk filled with photos of ancestors known only from their venerable photographs. But that’s not all.
Boxed-up life events and family history are likely even more precious today than they were decades ago. We’re not sure what to do with all of these photos but we’re not about to get rid of them, either. So mostly we do nothing. Maybe it’s time to stop doing nothing.
Dear Mary: I have a large trunk full of family photos dating from the early 1900s. How would you organize these? By dates? By persons? I am the only one left who is old enough to remember all of these people, but I think my children and descendants will be interested. It seems quite a task, and I don’t really know how to start. Thanks, Sue
Dear Sue: Start by getting a number of archival quality, acid-free photo-storage boxes. You can find photo-storage boxes at stores like Joann, Michaels, and Amazon. Pioneer is a well-known brand of acid-free photo boxes that come with metal identification plates and index cards, but there are others. Just make sure the boxes you get are clearly marked as “acid-free.” This will slow down or even halt further deterioration of the paper on which these photos were printed.
Nice photo boxes come in a variety of colors and stack easily, making it convenient for others to enjoy the photos, too. To me, acid-free photo-storage boxes are so much better than traditional photo albums. They help protect your loose pictures from the damage that can be caused by light, as well as the harmful chemicals found in developing envelopes, older photo albums, and cardboard shoe boxes. Stay away from plastic storage containers as these can trap moisture, which is a big photo no-no.
Start by sorting the photos chronologically. Any other sorting option is just too confusing and crazy-making. Think big picture by dividing first into two piles according to century. Next sort each pile by decade—even if that requires a wild guess—and so on until you have them in general order.
Sort directly into your photo boxes if possible, removing pictures from developing envelopes and plastic bags, keeping the negatives, if any, with the photographs. They will be helpful in the next step. Take the time now to toss any duplicate prints and blurry shots.
If you don’t know the exact dates of pictures, you can often find clues such as printer codes on the backs of the pictures or even the hairstyles of the people in the photo.
Index with dividers
Some photo boxes come with Index Cards that give you a way to divide photos by date, individuals in the photos, etc. These will greatly help in this sorting process.
Don’t worry if your chronological sorting isn’t perfect. Just getting the photos into order, where they are right side up and facing the same way will give you a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. You can always tweak the order later, which is the beauty and benefit of photo-storage boxes over albums. You may decide to make these boxes your permanent storage method of choice.
You may want to consider scanning the photos at some point to create a permanent digital record. Once they’re in proper storage boxes with index cards, it’s easy to lift out a small section, scan, and then return them in the same order as you took them from the box.
If you need a good, inexpensive scanner, consider this Epson Flatbed Scanner. It’s simple to set up, simple to use, and capable of producing great scans right out of the box. And the price is right.
Once scanned, it’s easy to add your notes and stories to document these images for future generations.
Use a service
If you’ve been on this planet for more than a couple of decades, you probably have boxes of 35mm slides, negatives in addition to piles of photo prints collecting dust in your back closet. Another option for digitizing your print photos, you can ship them off to an online scanning service. Starting at around $.30 or more per photo, you can let someone else transform those inaccessible memories into digital images you can share and enjoy as if they were taken yesterday.
Hire a professional
If organizing all your photographs seems too overwhelming or time-consuming, you might want to consider hiring a personal photo organizer. You can find one near you through ThePhotoManagers.com I was delighted to discover that one member lives right in my neighborhood.
First published: 5-7-20; Revised & Updated 1-31-22
Everyday Cheapskate participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon affiliated sites.