When History Comes to Life

Recently, my aunt gave me a USB drive with more than 1,000 files on it.  She had scanned the letters, postcards, V-mail and photos that my grandfather and his brother sent home to their parents during World War II.  I expected to find some interesting things, especially since my grandfather never wanted to talk about his involvement in the war.

Being a photo organizer and a librarian, I immediately set to work on tagging these files and getting them in order.  Fortunately, about half the items were dated, which was a great start.  My grandfather also put his location on many of the letters and photos – though the censors blocked a few of them out!

Before he left for Europe, my grandfather was at a couple of Army camps in the United States.  The wonders of Wikipedia allowed me to learn more about those camps and put notes on my files.  It also helped me with approximate dates because one of the camps was the staging area for men getting on ships out of the New York Port.

By adding metadata (information about each item) to the letters and photos, I was able to understand the path my grandfather took.  From his “Order to Report” in January 1943 to the “Separation Qualification” in May 1946, I watched a young man serve his country while pining for home.  I now understand how much time he spent in France and Austria and what the ship that brought him home looked like.

ww2 letters 114

I was fascinated by the notes on the postcards pointing out things he saw and places he lived.  Seeing him use the nickname “Doc” (he was a medic in the war but not at all trained in medicine otherwise) was a complete surprise.  He asked his family many questions about what was happening on the homefront and rarely ventured into anything ugly he was seeing.  And, as expected of my artistic grandfather, there were many drawings making light of the situation he was in.

You can read all the textbooks and nonfiction tomes in the world, but reading about daily living handwritten by a soldier in the war makes it very real.  When that soldier is a family member you are even more connected.  I am so very fortunate to have a record as comprehensive as I do of my grandfather’s war years.  Seeing him posed on skis on a mountain in Austria or to have him explaining which window of the house was his in the picture he took with his camera almost puts me there with him.

What documents do you have in your collection that should be digitized and protected to help tell your family history?  Wouldn’t it be great if you could do it while you can still ask family members for more details?  Get your family stories recorded and preserved before it’s too late.


Countdown to Christmas

Part of the fun of a trip or holiday is the anticipation leading up to the event.  I grew up with Advent (or countdown) calendars in my home.  In my adult years, I seem to collect more and more of these calendars for Christmas, Halloween, and even Disney trips.  They come in many forms and I enjoy watching the number get closer and closer to the number one.

Last year, I received a gift from my college roommate who lives across the state.  It was a string of lights with clips under them and a pile of numbered envelopes.  I hung up the lights and attached an envelope to each clip.  What a surprise as each day I opened up a beloved photo to hang in place of the envelope.  My friend had downloaded pictures from my Facebook page and had them printed for the project.  It was such a meaningful gift, and I looked forward to the surprise photo in each envelope as Christmas approached.

Another photo organizer blogged about a similar project last year where she described creating a photo advent calendar tree for an elderly relative (  In addition to photos, the envelopes included notes and memories of Christmases past.  How fun to connect with someone every day despite not being in close proximity.

Use your own creative ideas or get help from a site like Pinterest to get started.  Print 25 pictures on a theme and decide how to keep them covered until their reveal date.  Use binder rings or a stand to hold them all with the current countdown number/photo in front.  Tuck photos in decorative numbered bags along with a surprise treat or gift.  Mount the photo on a piece of cardstock twice the length of the photo and fold over and hide the picture until the reveal date.

While it takes time to plan and set up a countdown calendar, the joy it brings is worth it.  If your photos are all digitized and organized, you can access a variety of historical family photos to count down to Easter, Halloween, vacations, and more.  Photos of people hugging could be opened in the weeks leading to Valentine’s Day.  First day of school photos could be opened in the days before school starts.  How will you use photos to build excitement for an upcoming event?

Celebrate Small Businesses

It’s two weeks until Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.  My traditions include eating cinnamon rolls off Christmas plates, watching Detroit’s America’s Thanksgiving Parade on TV, and looking through every one of the ads that land on my porch with the newspaper.  I know I’ll be getting up at oh-my-gosh-it’s-early o’clock the next day to chase down deals for Black Friday.

One day that has been gaining traction lately is Small Business Saturday.  American Express created the new holiday in 2010 to support the businesses that don’t have thousands of dollars to put into newspaper and TV ads.  It encourages shoppers to spend some of their holiday dollars with local businesses who employ local workers to offer goods and services in the neighborhood.  Small Business Saturday is the day after Black Friday each November.

This month also marks one year since Cherish Your Photos LLC became a company.  Starting a business from scratch is never easy, and offering a service people don’t know even exists makes it even more challenging.  Every time I explain what I do, people exclaim that they need help organizing photos.  I hear stories about lost photos, not knowing who is in inherited photos, and relatives who are sitting on hundreds or thousands of pictures in their homes.

Organizing and digitizing photos and slides is something people think they will get around to “someday.”  It gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list because it is time-consuming and overwhelming.  Why not give the gift of time to someone who is overwhelmed by their photo collection?  Bring old photos back to life in shiny new prints or photo books.  Create peace of mind that photos are backed up.  Tell the stories in the pictures so future generations can enjoy them.

When you create your gift lists this year, consider the goods and services your local small businesses provide.  You’ll be keeping the dollars in the community and will likely end up with a quality gift that will be cherished for years to come.


The right way to organize your pictures

I’m the oldest of three children, so being bossy is in my job description.  I like telling people how things should be done.  Of course, my way is the right way.

When it comes to something as personal as your photo collection, the right way becomes as individual as the owner of the collection.  If your system works for you, then it is the right way to organize and find your photos.  I’m a chronological thinker and I want my photos organized by the date taken (oldest to most recent).  A more creative (i.e. less rigid) person might prefer to organize their photos by theme (birthday, vacation, sports).  Both ways are right.

There are, however, aspects of photo organization that are more clear in the distinction of what is right and what is wrong.  Like Goofus and Gallant from the old Highlights magazines, you can find examples of people doing the right thing and others doing it incorrectly.  Take a look at these tips below:

Goofus stores his pictures out of the way in the basement, attic and garage.
Gallant keeps his pictures in parts of the home that are more climate controlled.

Goofus uses shoeboxes and sticky albums to hold his photos.
Gallant keeps his photos in acid-free and photo-safe containers.

Goofus writes on the pictures with markers and pens.
Gallant uses a soft photo-safe pencil to make notes on the backs of photos.

Goofus uses bare hands to paw through all of the pictures when he is looking for a specific one.
Gallant wears cotton gloves when he handles pictures that are loose.

Goofus uploads all his pictures to Facebook and relies on that platform to hold onto his memories.
Gallant stores his digital photos in several places to ensure they are backed up and kept in the original, full format.

This is a silly, simplified way to explain photo organizing, but it shows the importance of taking care of your photos, no matter how you choose to organize them in your personal collection.  How the pictures are physically filed is as individual as the owner and content of the collection.  How the pictures are stored and handled should follow guidelines to keep them safe.


What Halloween photos are in your collection?

Halloween photos offer a unique insight into a person’s personality and what was popular at the time the picture was taken.  In older photos, you often see time and creativity put into making a costume from scratch.  In the 1970s, plastic masks were easy to purchase by busy parents, but they obscured faces – and vision!  Today, Pinterest gives people lots of costume ideas, from the ambitious, time-consuming choices to the easy, throw-it-together ones.

There are challenges to taking photos at Halloween.  Ideally, you want your pictures to look like those in magazines.  In reality, the time of day makes it difficult to get clear pictures as it gets darker.  There’s an added challenge when there is poor weather (growing up in Michigan, we planned costumes that went under winter coats many years).  Plus, kids are always running away from you instead of facing the camera.  Just remember to get something to help tell the story of the holiday each year.


Halloween 1958

What’s the oldest Halloween photo in your collection?  Wikipedia says costumes were worn long before cameras even existed.  Trick-or-treating became popular in North America in the 1930s.  If you’re lucky, somebody captured a costume or two for you to discover today.  What can you learn about your parents or grandparents by the costumes they chose when they were kids?


Don’t forget to take pictures at adult parties, too.  A costume or disguise allows people to become something other than what they present the rest of the year.  Record couples costumes (bacon and eggs? Raggedy Ann and Andy?) or groups of people following a theme.  What fun for kids to see adults in their lives letting go a little.

Fortunately, Halloween is a go-with-the-flow holiday.  Kids are excited about collecting treats and grownups are usually along for the ride.  Remember to keep the camera nearby to get what shots you can, without worrying about getting those perfect pictures.  Whatever you capture will be appreciated when those kids are grown.

How to estimate when a photo was printed

As I’m invited to handle more family collections of photos, I see more shapes and sizes of prints from years gone by.  It is also interesting to see the variety of sizes of photo albums that were created to house these old photos.  The 4×6 print has been a standard for so long, it’s easy to forget how long it took to get there.

How do you sort old photos in chronological order?  If you’re lucky, they are in photo albums labeled with dates to help you figure out when the pictures were taken and developed.  More likely, they are loose or pasted into scrapbooks and magnetic albums where various sizes reside on the same page.  You probably already know to look for clues in clothing, hairstyles and backgrounds (, but you may be able to get close by looking at the photo itself.

Unfortunately, the evolution of photographs resulted in many sizes being available depending on the camera and processing used.  Rectangular or square, tiny or large, photos have been printed in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.  This timeline may help guide you in finding the likely era of your photo:


1839-1860 – The daguerreotype image is formed on a highly polished silver surface.

mid-1850s to 1900 – Stereoscopic photographic views (stereographs) were immensely popular in the United States and Europe

1860-1900 – Tintypes at first were presented in cases surrounded by narrow gilt frames, but by the 1860s this elaborate presentation had been abandoned, and the metal sheets were simply inserted in paper envelopes, with a cutout window the size of the image.

1860s – Carte-de-visite, named because the size of the mounted albumen print (4 by 2.5 inches) corresponded to that of a calling card.

1860s – Cabinet prints were 5.5 ins x 4 ins photos mounted on cards 6.5 x 4.25 ins. with the photographer’s name and address on the back of the card (or occasionally below the photo on the front of the card.

1870s – Minettes were photos about 1.5 ins x 2.5 ins mounted on cards 1.625 ins x 3 ins.

Early 1900s – Panel prints 5.25 ins x 1.75 ins

Early 1900s – Popular roll film

  • 2 ins x 1 ins (120) for Kodak Brownie 1900
  • 3.25 ins x 2.25 ins (120) for Brownie2 – 1901/2
  • 2.5 ins x 1.625 ins  (8 exposures) OR 1.625 ins x 1.625 ins (12 exposures (127 film) 1912

1950s-1960s – 3.5 x 3.5 inches square

1960s – color photos reach the masses, used by late 1960s

1970s – Polaroids most popular this decade (small resurgence in the early 2000s)

1980s – 3×5 prints

1990s – panoramic format (4×8, 4×12)

Storing different-sized photos

So how do you store a photo collection that’s made up of so many different sizes?  Not easily.  You can store photos loosely in an acid-free box, place them in photo-safe scrapbooks by using acid-free adhesive to attach them to paper, or separate them by size and find appropriate albums to store them.  You could also digitize them and reprint them in a more standard size to keep them together.

Your old photograph collection has character, but it can present challenges.  Enjoy the process of sorting out your pictures and figuring out when they were taken.  Then protect them for future generations to enjoy.

Do your photos have historical significance?

Most of the photos in our collection hold little significance outside our circle of family and friends.  Birthdays, holidays, everyday silliness – these are the things that make us who we are.  But what about those few that might matter to a larger group of people?

This past summer, Detroit recognized the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots.  For many months leading up to the planned summer events, there were calls for personal photos and home movies taken during those weeks of unrest.  They were compiled and shared with the city in many ways to mark the occasion.  Do you have family photos from a major local or national news event?

What about historical photos from an even larger global scope?  I recently scanned slides taken in Vietnam by a military man stationed there in the early 1970s.  Those rediscovered pictures are important not just to the family, but potentially to textbook content, authors of other nonfiction books, news outlets and more.  Put together with what’s already known from that time, these pictures could add new insight or detail previously buried by time.

Genealogy is a widespread hobby, and the internet has made it easier than ever to find information.  The major websites that offer subscribers lots of information in one place often allow people to upload pictures to go along with entries for people and places.  Wouldn’t it be a wonderful surprise to find that a long-lost cousin posted a picture of your great-great-grandpa?

Back closer to home, the county in which I live is celebrating its bicentennial anniversary next year.  The website created for the yearlong commemoration includes a timeline of important things over the last 200 years.  The planning committee is trying to attach photos to as many of these points as possible because the visual helps tell the story.  We may hold scanning events at libraries to add historical photos as well because there are likely some hidden gems lurking in private collections.

Who could benefit from the photos in your collection?  What will you discover by organizing and digitizing your old photos and slides?  Protect these historical gems before they’re lost forever.

The main image for this post is Detroit Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon with the Conn Smythe (MVP) trophy in the 1997 Stanley Cup parade.

Fall is in the air

As the days turn cooler and it gets dark earlier, we start to turn our focus back indoors.  The gardens are done growing.  The pool is closed for the season.  It’s getting too dark out for an after-dinner bike ride.  What projects do you want to tackle indoors?

September is the ideal time to focus on organizing your photos for three big reasons:

Save Your Photos Month

September is designated as Save Your Photos Month (, a time to focus on protecting your photos.  The Association of Personal Photo Organizers and select sponsors are providing webinars and links to events to help you learn to organize and protect your pictures.  Recent flooding and fires have destroyed many belongings and photo organizers want to make sure your photos are never in that kind of danger.

Fresh start

While September is back-to-school time for kids, it also is a time to make a fresh start if you aren’t going to school.  With a mom who has a September birthday and a love of school supplies, September always meant new beginnings and stocking up on fresh crayons and markers, papers and notebooks, and any other fun organizational tools.  Then we brainstormed projects and made lists of things to get done around the house.  As a photo organizer, I’ve taken advantage of seasonal sales to buy index cards for sorting print photos, USB drives to store and share digital photos, and containers for temporary storage.

Prepare for holiday gifts

We are now about 100 days away from Christmas and less than three months until Hanukkah.  If you want to give a gift with meaning, now is the time to select, digitize, and create products with your photos.  Whether you make a photo book, frame a special photo, or create one of the myriad of products with photos on them, it takes time to make a photo gift.  Do it well before the holiday rush and know your gift will arrive on time and looking just how you want it.

Don’t think of autumn as the end of summer, but as the beginning of taking care of things in your home.  Make photo organizing a priority this year and relax knowing your photos are protected from future harm.  Having them easy to access and enjoy is a bonus!


Grandparents Day

“Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.” ~Alex Haley

Whether you create a family tree, deep dive into genealogy, or just organize your old family photos, the generations above your parents have a mystical quality about them.  The clothing, hairstyles, and household items you see in old photos look different from today.  The people in the photos spent their days differently than you do.

I was fortunate enough to have three grandparents in my life into my 30s, and one into my 40s.  There’s a certain fascination being connected to someone who can tell you what your parents were like as kids.  You can’t imagine them being kids themselves.


An outing with my grandfather to see the Titanic exhibit.


Now that I have all of the old family photos, I realize the missed opportunity to speak to my grandparents about anything and everything.  What was their day-to-day routine?  How did they feel about new technologies coming into their home?  What stores did they shop at for different kinds of products?  Did they realize at the time what a cool car they drove?

Most important to me would be the family stories.  I don’t remember some of my great aunts and uncles, great grandparents and other people that I see in these pictures.  Who were they?  How involved were they in your grandparents’ lives?

This Sunday is Grandparents Day, a day “…to honor grandparents, to give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children, and to help children become aware of strength, information, and guidance older people can offer” according to the 1978 proclamation.  While it may be too late to create photo gifts to give this weekend, it’s the perfect opportunity to get some of that information and guidance from the generation that has so many answers.  Set up some time to look through old photos (and get them out of sticky albums and shoeboxes) and ask your questions.  You’ll both be glad you did.

The main picture for this blog post is one of my very favorites.  It’s my Christening day and I’m surrounded by my mom, both grandmothers, and my two living great-grandmothers.


How many pictures are too many?

How many pictures do you have on your smartphone right now?  Go check – I’ll wait.

Now how many pictures do you have on your main computer?  20,000?  50,000?  More?

How many feet of shelf space do your photo albums occupy?

Photo organizers, like home organizers, encourage people to weed out items that don’t enrich their lives.  When you have too much of any one thing, you lose the things you love among the items you don’t care for as much.  They lose value when you have to look past the less relevant items to get to the important ones.

Since I’ve been organizing my family’s photo collection, I have made many great discoveries.  My sister had a picture taken the same day as a picture in my collection, and now the two pictures tell more of the story than one alone.  There were many photos in my grandparents’ collection I’d never seen before.  Even digitizing my own pictures from the 1980s showed places I had forgotten about.

On the other hand, combining all these collections had one major downside:  duplicate cameras at the same event resulting in slightly different photos.  My grandparents’ 50th anniversary party had a professional photographer, their three children’s cameras, and my camera.  That’s not including more extended family photos that are out there somewhere!  Now that photos from five cameras are combined from this event, I have each pose captured in five different ways.

It’s not easy for many of us to delete photos of loved ones.  This is the time to remind yourself that deleting one photo where your mom has a strange look on her face does not mean you suddenly don’t have any more photos of her!  You will enjoy the photo you kept even more when it’s not buried by dozens of other pictures.

It may be helpful to weed in stages.  Make a first pass through a collection (physical or digital) and make the easy deletes (blurry, nobody looking, too far away, etc.).  Then set the project aside for a day or a week.  When you look through what you have left, you should see more places you can trim.

If you have digitized all your photos, it may be easier to delete the ones you don’t love on your computer knowing the original prints are stored in a box (acid-free, of course) in an out-of-the-way closet.  It’s less scary knowing you can re-scan the prints or even negatives again if you get too wild with the delete button.  For digital-first photos, save them all to an external hard drive or USB drive that doesn’t take up much room, and weed out your computer collection that you access more often.

You will appreciate the photos you have when they are not cluttered by photos that don’t make you feel as good to look through.  Be selective in keeping the clear, close photos over the dark, blurry, far-away shots.  Quality over quantity!