Ciara Joyce, Archivist
Working my way through the many boxes of the Pearse Hutchinson Archive here at Maynooth University Library, I was surprised to see what looked like a muslin cloth among the boxes of family papers.
On closer inspection the cloth concealed a number of glass plate negatives, which had been carefully wrapped in sections of the cloth to protect them from breakage. This archive includes a large collection of photographs but these appear to be the earliest in the collection.
While the negatives had been thoroughly wrapped they had not always been shown this level of care as all are quite dirty, one is chipped at the corner and one negative is broken in three pieces.
What are glass plate negatives?
The earliest photographic processes were developed in the 1820s and 1830s. The first glass plate negative was invented in 1851 by British inventor Fredrick Scott Archer. Early photographs were made of three parts; a base or support, made of glass, an emulsion used to bind the image to the support and the image made of silver or colour dyes. Glass plates were generally used between 1851 and the 1890s. Their popularity began to decline with the invention of cellulose nitrate film in 1903 and they were replaced by gelatin silver paper negatives by the 1920s.
Being made of glass, the negatives are naturally fragile and require careful handling and storage. The quality of the glass used depended on the materials and skills available in their production and varied significantly from place to place. The emulsions used are also susceptible to degradation over time, especially those made by more experimental photographers, and emulsions can suffer from chipping or flaking. Plates were often recycled and put to other uses, so their survival was precarious at best.
Digitisation and producing a positive image:
In order to identify the images on the glass plates, they were scanned on a flat bed scanner, using a setting designed for black and white negatives. The glass plates were scanned at a high resolution to also create a preservation copy.
So who is in the photographs?
Holding the negatives up to the light gives a clear outline of the image captured on the glass but it is only when the plate is scanned that you see the image in all its detail. They appear to be family portraits, of groups, pairs and individuals. They are likely members of the extended McElhinney family of Cowcaddens and Uddingston in Glasgow.
The McElhinneys were originally from County Donegal. William McElhinney from Findrum and Jeanie Heron from Saint Johnstown, met as teenagers on the boat to Scotland. They were married on the 11th of September 1884, in Saint Johnstown, County Donegal. William became a successful merchant and the family prospered. Their daughter Caitlín (Kathleen) McElhinney is pictured as a young woman in a number of the plates, as is her husband Henry Warren Hutchinson. Cailtín and Henry were Pearse Hutchinson’s parents
Conservation of the glass plates
The glass plate negatives have been temporarily rehoused in a purpose made conservation standard box. They will be moved to our conservation department for cleaning to ensure their long- term preservation.
For more information about the Pearse Hutchinson Archive please contact Special Collections and Archives.