Reilly, James M. The Albumen & Salted Paper Book: The history and practice of photographic printing, 1840-1895. Light Impressions Corporation. Rochester, 1980.

Guidelines for the Identification of Albumen and Salted Paper Prints
Appendix C


It is a very difficult task to set forth guidelines for the identification of these materials because they are for the most part hand-crafted products; on the other hand, there do exist a few standard indicators that will yield a fairly reliable judgment. In the final analysis, process identification of 19th-century print materials depends almost wholly on experience and judgment, and is a skill that slowly improves with practice. The information presented here is intended solely to assist persons who may be unfamiliar with these materials in narrowing the range of possible choices, not in making positive identification of individual prints.

In order to develop skills in identifying albumen and salted paper prints, original prints must be seen and handled. In the case of salted paper prints this may not be easy, but sizeable photographic collections exist in every large city, and they are likely places to begin a process of familiarization. With regard to albumen prints, it is certainly very easy to find prints for study, although one must be sure that example prints are correctly labeled. Quite a few 19th-century journals contain tipped-in specimens of photographic prints of various kinds, and these prints are usually labeled as to process. Among the journals whose issues occasionally contained actual photographs are The Photographic and Fine Art Journal, Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, Wilson's Photographic Magazine, The Philadelphia Photographer, Photographische Korrespondenz, Photographische Archiv, and The American Journal of Photography. Specimen prints in journals are a particularly good way to help differentiate albumen paper from the gelatin and collodion printing-out papers which replaced it in photographic practice.

For those who are so inclined, an excellent way to develop skills in print identification is to actually make albumen and salted paper prints. A little direct experience with albumen will make it much more familiar when encountered in historical materials. The most important advice on the whole subject of identification, however, is not to rely on reproductions or descriptions of anything, but to seek out original materials and get to know them in all their variety.


I. Is the Print a Silver Photographic Print?

Silver photographic prints from the albumen and salted paper era (1840-1895) generally show some form of deterioration, or possess spots and blemishes of chemical origin that distinguish them as actual photographic prints. Most albumen and salted paper prints are faded and yellowed to some degree, either overall or in localized areas. A perfectly intact, unblemished image usually indicates that a print is not an albumen and salted paper print. Such a perfect print may either be of photomechanical origin, such as a woodburytype, carbon print, collotype, etc., or else may be a silver photographic print on gelatin or collodion printing-out paper. These materials may resemble albumen prints, but have generally survived in better condition.


Image color is one of the most important factors in identifying albumen and salted paper prints, but it is also an area where experience is vitally necessary. In light of this fact a list of possible image colors is of very limited value. A discussion of image color is complicated by the problem of changes induced in prints by fading and yellowing, and also by the fact that many photomechanical processes could (and did) successfully mimic the color and appearance of albumen prints. A third complicating factor is the possibility that a print was hand colored using water colors or aniline dyes.

Albumen and salted paper prints in original condition are usually warm brown, purplish-brown, purple or purplish-black. They are seldom black, but occasionally they will approach neutral black yet still contain some trace of purple in middletone areas. They are never green, but severely faded and yellowed albumen prints sometimes possess a faint greenish tinge. Approximately 85% of albumen prints show some readily noticeable yellow or yellowish-brown stain in the whites and highlight areas. The presence of highlight yellowing and the characteristic surface texture of albumen are two of the most readily apparent and reliable indicators that a given print is an albumen print. Albumen prints are certainly not the only types of prints that may exhibit highlight yellowing, however, so one must also watch for contraindications that may be present.


Surface characteristics by themselves are little help in differentiating albumen and salted paper prints from other kinds of photographic prints; corroborating indicators must also be present. Many photographic materials have similar surface qualities and the appearance of any surface may be altered by smoothing or the application of other substances. Nevertheless the basic fact remains that salted paper prints are rough or matte-surfaced, while albumen prints are smooth and display a greater or lesser degree of surface gloss. Salted paper prints were made on both smooth and porous rawstocks of various weights, but albumen prints (especially after 1860) were generally made on a very smooth, lightweight stock. Albumen prints of the period 1850-1870 are usually less glossy than those of the period 1870-1890, because of two factors: the use of burnishing and rolling machines to smooth the prints after mounting, and the increased use after 1870 of double-coated paper.

Albumen paper was not made with a substratum of barium sulfate (baryta) and gelatin as were emulsion-type gelatin and collodion printing-out papers, and therefore these materials exhibit a generally smoother surface than albumen prints. Albumen paper usually exhibits a characteristic surface texture which (if not obscured by burnishing or rolling) sometimes possesses a "crackled" or "crazed" appearance. Experienced individuals usually have little difficulty in detecting albumen paper by its surface texture.


Information contained in the photographic image itself or on the mount of the photograph can often help to establish the approximate time at which the negative or print was made. Only in rare instances will there be a significant lag between the making of the negative and the making of the print, so it can be assumed in most cases that the negative and the print have the same approximate date of origin. There are many internal clues to aid in the dating of a photograph, and assigning an approximate date is a common practice in historical photographic collections.

Once it has been established that a print is a silver photographic print and an approximate date has been determined for it, reference to the chart below may be helpful in process identification:

Most Common Types of Photographic Paper, 1840-1905

1840-1855 Salted Papers
1855-1895 Albumen Paper
1895-1905 Gelatin and Collodion Printing-out Papers

Within the span 1840-1905 there are obviously periods of transition from one type of printing paper to another, and in these transition periods the date of origin of an image is not much help in identifying the specific print process. On the other hand, there are also spans of time where there can be little doubt as to the printing paper in use by the vast majority of photographers. One such time is of course the 10-year period between 1840 and 1850, before the invention of albumen paper. Except for very rare cases where the prints were made by development (using the calotype, or paper negative process), prints of this decade are plain salted paper prints.

The years 1850-1860 represent a transition period between salted papers and albumen paper. For the first few years of the decade plain salted papers predominated, while at mid-decade came a time of unprecedented variety, as albumen paper coexisted with a number of different kinds of matte salted papers. These matte salted papers were treated with a salting-sizing solution using an organic binder such as gelatin, whey or starch, among other substances. It is not possible to differentiate at a glance between these various types of matte salted paper. As the year 1860 drew closer, albumen paper gradually replaced most of the varieties of salted papers, and ascended to an almost unchallenged dominance of photographic practice.

Thus the period 1860-1885 is a time of reasonable certainty with regard to process identity, and there is a great likelihood that any given silver photographic print of that period was made on albumen paper. Studio portraits (except life-size enlargements) and stereo views of this era are especially likely to be albumen prints, and indeed photographs of any kind from this period not made on albumen paper are unusual. After 1885 an enormous number of photographs were produced on albumen paper, but there can be little certainty in a process identification based on the date of the photograph. The mid-1880's began a 30-year period of great diversity in photographic printing papers. World War I marked the end of this era of diversity, and consolidated the dominance of develop-out bromide and chlorobromide papers, a dominance which lasted until the early 1960's. At that time chromogenic color papers became the most widely used photographic printing material and have remained so until the present day.


Arthur T. Gill, Photographic Processes, a Glossary and Chart for Recognition, Museums Association Information Sheet IS No. 21, 1978. Published by the Museums Association, 87 Charlotte St., London W1P 2BX, United Kingdom

Siegfried Rempel, The Care of Black and White Photographic Collections: Identification of Processes, Technical Bulletin No. 6, published by The Canadian Conservation Institute, National Museums Canada. Technical Bulletins may be requested free of charge by writing the Canadian Conservation Institute, 1030 Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0M8