Can bare hands dissolve metal?

by Sally J.

in * How to PRESERVE Family History Treasures, Free Articles / Blog

Here’s a question I get all the time:

What’s with the white gloves, anyway?

Ah, yes. The white gloves. Sort of the archivist’s trademark.

My favorite story about why archivists and conservators wear gloves is a George Eastman tale that may or may not be true. I can’t verify its authenticity, but I’ve remembered it for more than eleven years. I figure it it’s that sticky, you’ll probably remember it without really trying.

This story is about George Eastman, the genius behind Kodak,* and the time period is somewhere between 1880 and 1930.

Mr. Eastman insisted that every prospective new employee put his or her hand on a sheet of metal as part of the interview process. After that, he would wait a week to see how much the acids in their hand ate into the metal. Too much, and they didn’t get a job at Kodak. Their hands were simply too hazardous.

My second favorite story about why archivists wear gloves is 100% verifiable. It comes to me from Nicolette Bromberg (the same person, coincidentally, who told me the Eastman story). Nicolette heard this one first hand from the source:

At the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester (that’s
the place James Reilly does testing on photographic
materials), there is a research scientist named
Doug Nishimura. I remember that the first time I
took the week long seminar on photo preservation at
Eastman House, Doug talked about how toxic his own
chemistry was–his skin eats up watches, etc. He said
he has to wear rubber gloves and then the cotton
gloves. I thought it was pretty interesting that he
ended up in a field where he handles photographs all
the time!

Here’s why you should remember these stories:

The oils and salts on your hands contain chemicals that can damage photographs. You don’t know if your hands are super toxic or safe as kittens. If you don’t want to cause any damage to your photos, don’t touch them with your bare hands. Evah.

Cotton gloves offer a barrier of protection. They are inexpensive and easy to purchase online, so there’s really no excuse. Except I know from talking to family archivists and scrapbookers that some folks just can’t stand wearing gloves.

What if I just can’t wear gloves? These are your photographs, and therefore it’s your call. I’ve said many times before that you do not have to preserve every photo for hundreds of years.

Also, you are not alone. I’ve never seen a scrapbooker wearing gloves. And now some researchers are arguing that the loss of feeling you get while wearing gloves is more dangerous to fragile rare books than the acids the gloves are holding back. I would argue that this is NOT the case with modern photographic prints, but again….it’s your call.

In any case, if you can’t work with gloves on or think it’s unnecessary, here are a few practical tips to minimize damage:

  • Handle your prints by the edges only.
  • Wash your hands with soap and skip the lotion.
  • If you get up to take a break (answer the phone, eat lunch, etc.) wash you hands again before you go back to your photo project.

What about those sprays and lotions that are supposed to get rid of the acids in your hands? Yeah, I’ve heard about these. My one word review? Feh! Washing with soap and water is just as effective and much, much cheaper.

One last tip: Cotton gloves (like these from Amazon) can be gently washed with a mild soap and hung to dry. Skip the fabric softener, please. The thinner the gloves, the fewer times you can wash and reuse before you pop a seam.

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*Did you know that Eastman invented the name Kodak? Here’s a brief passage from his Wikipedia entry:

He and his mother devised the name Kodak with an anagram set. He said that there were three principal concepts he used in creating the name: it must be short, you can not mispronounce it, and it could not resemble anything or be associated with anything but Kodak.

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