The Journal of Photographic Science. Vol. 26, 1978. pp. 156-61
28 Hinsdale Street, Rochester, NY 14620, U.S.A.
Albumen paper was the most widely used photographic printing material in the nineteenth century. It was a pure silver chloride printing-out paper, manually coated sheet by sheet in factories and usually sensitized by the user at the time of use by floating on a silver nitrate solution. Processing involved gold toning and fixing with sodium thiosulphate. The centre of world manufacture was in Dresden, Germany, where two large companies dominated the industry. Raw stock was supplied from only two paper mills which held a virtual world monopoly. Presensitized and roll-coated gelatin and collodion printing-out papers finally captured the market from albumen paper in the early 1890's. Albumen paper enjoyed a revival around World War I when "matte-albumen" papers, made with a mixture of starch and albumen, were briefly popular. The last commercial production of albumen paper is believed to have been in 1929.
In public collections and private hands, the largest single category of photographic artifacts that survive from the nineteenth century are albumen prints. The albumen print dominated photographic practice from 1855 to about 1890, and remained in use in various forms through the 1920's. Though its manufacture was a refined handicraft and not a mechanized procedure, it bridged the gap between the completely user-created print materials of photography's beginnings and the ready-made emulsion papers that we know today. An enormous industry grew up around it, employing thousands of workers—mostly women—who broke eggs, beat the whites and floated the paper on the albumen solution one sheet at a time. Some idea of how this material was made and used may be of some help in conserving the heritage that the millions of surviving albumen prints represents.
Only nine years after Fox Talbot announced the calotype process a French photographer named Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard published the albumen printing process. The notice appeared in Comptes Rendus (the bulletin of the French Academy of Science) on 27 May 1850; the details of this revolutionary new process were simple. Egg white together with one-quarter of its weight of saturated salt solution was beaten to a froth and allowed to settle until it returned to a liquid state. Suitable paper was then floated on the egg white solution and hung up to dry. When needed for use, it was floated albumen side down on a strong solution of silver nitrate, dried and exposed to sunlight under a negative. In sunlight, the image appeared little by little until the photographer by periodically checking decided that it was fully formed, and then the print was brought inside to be washed, gold toned and fixed. Although gold toning was not mentioned in Blanquart-Evrard's original instructions, it became a universal practice very shortly thereafter.
Thus albumen paper is a printing-out material, which means the image is formed by the action of light alone, and not developed chemically from an invisible latent image. The print-out property obtains in silver halide (usually silver chloride) systems where silver nitrate is present in great excess; roughly six times more silver is required than will eventually comprise the image. For albumen paper the presence of the excess silver nitrate meant that the sensitized paper would yellow rather quickly unless processed, so most prints—unless special measures were taken—were sensitized, printed and processed on the same day.
Silver images produced in any print-out system like albumen paper are composed of very small particles of metallic silver in a colloidal state. Images in develop-out systems are made of much larger particles, hence the basic difference in image colour—colloidal silver images generally appear reddish brown instead of black. But equally important is the basic fact that the colloidal image is more susceptible to the destructive effects of sulphur than the filamentary silver of developed images, because the smaller particles expose more surface area to destructive influences. Nevertheless, with proper fixation, washing and storage the albumen print can be as durable as any other kind of silver print.
Surviving albumen prints present a bewildering variety of image colours, but there are basically two dynamics operating to create the colour of any given example. The most important is the toning process, whereby the original colloidal silver image is enhanced with a deposition of metallic gold1. Without toning the image of the albumen prints a kind of russet brown colour, influenced slightly toward redder or browner shades by the presence of organic substances on the paper base, and the pH and moisture content of the sensitized albumen layer at the time of printing2. Over the course of time a second dynamic becomes operative—the amount of fading and yellowing the print has undergone. Though to be sure toned prints do fade, an untoned albumen print is much more easily destroyed by the colloidal silver reacting with sulphur compounds than a gold-toned print.
During the decade 1850-60 many advances in scientific understanding were made regarding techniques of effective toning and fixation of silver printing papers. Albumen paper had the advantage of rendering more detail than the earlier matte salted papers, but it required more effective toning and fixation. Many early albumen prints, especially from the early and middle 1850's, show extensive fading and some are blacker in tone than later examples. The reasons for this are that toning and fixation were not well understood at that time, and, the blacker tones were the result of diluting the albumen with up to 50% water and carrying the gold toning to extreme lengths. Alkaline gold-toning solutions, separate fixation in fresh, strong hypo and thorough washing were the basic advances made in this decade that overcame these difficulties and allowed for the enormous commercial and aesthetic development of albumen paper.
Gold toning for printing papers was first suggested by P. Mathieu in 1847 and was very much popularized by the writings and example of Gustave Le Gray. By 1855 the practice was nearly universal. The idea of gold toning was borrowed from the daguerreotypists, who used a compound called sel d'or (a mixture of gold chloride and sodium thiosulphate) to intensify their daguerreotypes. Sel d'or toning was very popular during the 1850's for paper prints, but because the unstable sel d'or decomposed in a short time leaving sulphur toning as its main effect, many such prints speedily faded. Sel d'or toning was even less successful with albumen prints than with salted paper prints, and at the end of the 1850's it was widely repudiated in photographic periodicals3. Gustave Le Gray at first advocated sel d'or toning but later recommended plain chloride of gold solutions made acid with hydrochloric acid4. The problem with this method was that the silver image was attacked by the strong acid and required that the print be greatly overprinted to withstand the bleaching effect of the toning bath.
The toning of albumen prints became considerably more successful with the introduction of alkaline gold chloride solutions. First applied by James Waterhouse sometime around alkaline gold toning soon became a universal practice. Feebly alkaline toning solutions were three times more effective in depositing gold on the silver image than acid ones, and were a great step forward. The alkalinity of the toning solution and the amount of time the print spends in it help determine the final colour of the print. The natural reddish brown colour of the albumen print can be modified by toning to brown, purple-brown, purple or black.
Fixation of albumen prints was always done after gold toning, because the toning process created silver chloride as a by-product, and this would have the effect of re-sensitizing the print. To be effective, the fixing bath had to be composed of a fresh, strong solution of sodium thiosulphate ("hypo"). Washing out of the fixing agent also had to be very thorough, because residual hypo posed a serious threat to the colloidal silver image. The yellowing and fading resulting from the contamination of the silver image with sulphur to form silver sulphide can occur not only from residual hypo but also from reactions with atmospheric contaminants and sulphur present in the albumen itself.
At first, each photographer prepared his or her own albumen paper, but the commercial development of the process was not long in coming, and within five years of its discovery albumen paper was available in the market-place. Difficulties were many, but for amateur and businessman alike among the most troublesome was finding suitable base paper to albumenize. The paper had to be lightweight so that it could be easily manipulated during the floating steps, opaque, have good wet strength and especially be free of harmful silver-reducing substances. These stringent requirements necessitated that a carefully manufactured all-rag paper be used. Some papers were useless because they contained hypo, which was used by the papermakers to destroy chlorine bleaching compounds added to the rag pulp. There could be no metal particles caused by bits of the papermaking machinery breaking off, and only vegetable-sized paper was suitable.
Eventually, only two concerns were able to make dependable rawstock for albumen paper, and were able to dominate -the world market right up until l9145. The two mills were the Blanchet Frères et Kleber Company who produced the "Rives" brand of paper at a mill in Rives near Grenoble, France, and Steinbach and Company, whose mill at Malmédy (then part of Germany) near the Belgian border produced the "Saxe" brand of paper. These mills had the advantage of experience, a relatively mineral-free water supply and subsidies for developing new manufacturing techniques and machinery. The ''Rives"' paper was the most widely used, and it had a smoother surface than the "Saxe", though the "Saxe" had greater strength and was preferred for larger prints. Both papers were machine made and sized with a mixture of starch and resin soap.
The first manufacturing concern for albumen paper in Germany—the country where the industry was to have its greatest development—was the Photographic Institute of Eduard Liesegang in Elberfeld, where production began in 18546. Within a few years there were no less than 24 firms manufacturing albumen paper in Germany alone. Many small companies sprang up in England, France, Austria and the U.S.A. to make the new product, and during the late 1850's and 1860's the demand stimulated by the cartes de visite craze made for very volatile business conditions. The city of Dresden later became the place where the most concentrated production was carried out. Hermann Vogel communicated to the readers of The Philadelphia Photographer magazine in 1874 the news of the union of the seven existing albumen paper factories of Dresden into one giant firm, Die Vereinigten Fabriken Photographische Papiere A.G. (hereafter called the "United") and went on to underscore Dresden's importance to the industry:
The process of manufacture was broken down into a series of specialized tasks. The accompanying illustrations (Figs. 1-6) show the stages of manufacture; they are from Josef Maria Eder's Ausführliches Handbuch der Photographie, Book IV, part 1, 1898 edition, and are illustrative of the techniques used in the Dresden factories at that time. The pace of work was especially feverish in the spring and summer, when egg production was at its peak and elevated temperatures were easier to maintain in drying and fermentation rooms and curing lofts. As eggs were brought in, they were separated by hand and then carefully inspected so that no yolk or blood contaminated the whites. The yolks were preserved with salt and usually went to the leather-dressing industry for the finishing of kid leathers. The price of egg yolks was a significant factor in the profit and loss statements of the larger albumen paper manufacturers8.
The egg white required several denaturing treatments before it could be applied to the paper stock. Many differ rent approaches are known to have been used, but the fermentation method favoured by the Dresden manufacturers appears to have been the most widely applied. Hen's egg white contains at least seven different proteins, all with different physical and chemical characteristics9. It is necessary to convert somehow this stringy, inhomogenous mass into a flaccid liquid that will produce an even coating on the paper. All producers of albumen paper beat the egg whites to a froth as a first step—sometimes with steam-driven churns—and this accomplished a great deal of the denaturation. The resulting froth occupied a volume of eight to ten times the volume of the original egg white and required from 1 to 2 days to settle back to a liquid state. The residue of foam and other insoluble matter was removed by filtering the liquid through muslin.
Usually a second form of denaturation was employed; this could be accomplished either by adding alcohol or by adjusting the pH through fermentation or directly adding acids such as acetic acid, etc. The purpose of these treatments was to change further the physical characteristics of the albumen to make it easier to coat onto the base stock. Beaten fresh albumen is slightly alkaline and tends to dry in streaks and blotches on the paper surface, as well as yielding a relatively more matte finish. Through ageing and fermentation, the albumen becomes acidic through a natural process, and this acidic condition allows for even application to the paper and creates a relatively higher surface gloss.
The fermentation lasted several days, and at the end of that time the mixture was again churned to a froth (though this time with a hand whisk), settled, filtered again and the appropriate amount of chloride added. The important factor here was the pH of the albumen solution, and fresh albumen was often simply made acidic by the addition of alcohol, acetic acid or other substances. At the Trapp & Münch albumen paper factory in Friedburg, Germany (in 1874 the "United" firm's only German competitor), and apparently in American factories, unfermented albumen was used10.
The fermentation method did impart a characteristic smell to the unsensitized albumen paper. Hence we find in an 1887 advertisement for an American brand, "Hovey's Original Special", a testimonial letter from a customer in Michigan who catalogues the paper's many virtues, concluding with emphasis that it "don't stink"11.
The further preparation of the albumen for coating involved adding the appropriate amount of chloride and the possible tinting of the albumen with aniline dyes. The chloride most often used was ammonium chloride, which contained the most chlorine per unit weight and thus was easiest to add and least likely to crystallize. The amount of chloride has a great effect on the speed and contrast of the paper, and over the years the standard chloride content steadily declined, from an average of 2-3% in the 1860's and 1870's to only 1¼% in the 1890's12. This change reflected the decreasing contrast of the average dry plate negative in comparison to the average wet collodion negative, and the discovery that heavily salted papers unnecessarily consumed more silver nitrate. Dyes were often added to the albumen to tint the surface pink, blue, mauve, etc. and these variations were very popular with portrait photographers. The dyes used were notoriously poor in light-fastness, especially in heavily diluted forms, so much of the dyed paper cannot be recognized today.
The base paper stock was coated just as it came from the manufacturer, without further treatment. The standard sheet size was 46 x 58 cm and the standard ream weights were 8 or 10 kg, a much lighter weight sheet than modern single weight papers. Thin sheets were preferred because they were easier to manipulate in coating and sensitization, and because it was recognized that since the paper base held on to traces of hypo, thick paper was more difficult to wash. When a rage for dark chocolate and black mounts for cartes de visite and "cabinet" format portraits occurred in the mid-1880's, manufacturers were forced to supply thicker 10 kg paper as standard, because the dark mounts could be seen through the highlights of thinner paper. The 8 kg paper remained standard for other uses, such as mass-produced topographical views13. The larger albumen paper manufacturers supplied a variety of weights and formats up to 39 kg paper, 92 x 116 cm in size.
Naturally the consumption of eggs was enormous. Three dozen eggs were required to produce 1 litre of albumen; to coat a ream of paper (480 sheets) 9 litres of albumen solution were required14. The Dresdener Albuminfabriken A.G. in 1888 produced 18,674 reams of albumen paper15. This company, founded in 1885 by combining five recently formed smaller companies into one large stock corporation, was a strong competitor of the "United" firm until they merged in 19016. By the above figures of paper produced in 1888 it may be calculated that this one company consumed in one year 168,066 litres of albumen, obtained from 6,050,376 eggs.
The sheets were floated one at a time for 1-2 minutes on the albumen solution. It was necessary to equalize the temperature of the floating room with that of the raw paper to minimize the curling of the sheets while they were being floated. The women performing the floating operation usually had two pans in operation simultaneously, and it took much practice to float paper consistently without trapping air bubbles under the sheet. As soon as the sheets were hung up and had stopped dripping albumen, the racks holding them were removed to a drying room where the temperature was kept between 30 and 50 °C. Faster drying led to higher gloss on the albumen surface. After they were dry, the sheets were placed two at a time back to back between polished zinc plates and put through a calendering press. This treatment made the sheets supple and gave them a higher gloss. Finally, the paper was sorted into first and second quality levels and packaged.
From the 1880's on most of the paper sold was of the "doubly albumenized" variety. Papers to be doubly coated were cured in a warm loft for 6 months before the second coating to ensure that the first coat had coagulated and would not dissolve off the sheet during the second float. The papers were then hung up to dry by the opposite end than was used the first time, so that the coating would be evenly distributed. The doubly albumenized paper had a higher gloss but was more liable to cracking. The "United" company of Dresden produced four types of paper, two singly coated and two doubly coated varieties17. Within each category there was an extra glossy kind, called "high gloss" for the single coated and "enamel" for the double coated. Since there was -no underlayer between the paper fibres and the albumen (unlike emulsion papers which generally have a .baryta and gelatin substratum), the smoothness of the rawstock was a large determinant of the surface character of the finished print. The papermakers greatly improved the calendering and smoothness of their product over the years, and albumen prints show a corresponding improvement in surface fineness.
Generally the products of most albumen paper manufacturers served well, but every manufacturer had produced grossly defective paper at various times18.The products of the larger producers were sold under many different brand names; photographers would have an unhappy experience with one brand and find satisfaction with another, unaware that they had purchased exactly the same material under another name. The paper was at its best when fresh but not strictly fresh, and sometimes the albumen was applied to the sheet in a too badly decomposed condition19. Photographers found these lapses in quality very annoying, as Hermann Vogel attests in his Handbook (1875):
In 1872 ready-sensitized albumen paper was put on the market, but it found little favour among professionals and mass-production printing houses. The prints with factory-sensitized paper were not as brilliant as ones made in the usual way, wherein the user floated the paper on a strong silver nitrate solution immediately before use. Large volume users also found sensitizing paper themselves to be considerably cheaper than to purchase the preserved kind The preservation of the ready-sensitized paper was accomplished either by adding citric acid to the silver nitrate solution or by floating the back of the sensitized paper on a citric acid solution21. Also some ready-sensitized papers required a revitalizing treatment with ammonia fumes before they could be used. Nevertheless, many amateur photographers welcomed the opportunity to dispense with their silvering dishes and finger stains. Ready-sensitized albumen paper gained ground steadily, becoming increasingly important as the non-professional photographic market expanded.
Success in printing with albumen paper depended on correctly managing a three-way relationship between the amount of chloride contained in the albumen (which was determined by the manufacturers and claimed to be a "secret"), the strength of the silver-sensitizing solution and the density range of the negative. Photographic publications attempted to keep photographers informed of the correct strength of the silver bath for different brands of paper, with adjustments made for different seasons of the year (reflecting differing amounts of ultra-violet radiation in daylight) and the density range of the negative. A contrasty negative called ideally for a weaker silver solution and vice versa, if the chloride content and illumination remained constant.
A fourth variable in the printing process was the nature of the exposing light. Direct sunlight tended to flatten prints—unless the negative used had sufficient density and contrast to withstand such a strong light—as was the case with many wet collodion negatives. A weaker light such as from open sky or much weaker overcast sky tended to make prints more contrasty, because the highlights bleached to a relatively greater extent in toning and fixing. Negatives of low density range and contrast were very difficult to print; many, more such negatives were produced by the gelatin dry plate process, and consequently a lower chloride content and correspondingly strong silver solution were used to try to boost print contrast. The duration of exposure could vary between 2 minutes and 1 hour in sunlight (in extreme cases) and could run to several hours in grey weather. The often-noted differences in colour and contrast between albumen prints made from the same negative are mainly, due to differences in the quality of the exposing light, if the preparation and processing are the same.
For finishing, albumen prints were usually mounted onto cardboard mounts with laundry starch paste. Often they were rolled in special devices to make the print surface smoother and glossier and help them lie flat on the mount. A process of rolling with a heated bar or roller was called "burnishing", and gave the prints a mirror-like gloss. Sometimes the prints were rubbed with wax compounds to deepen the shadows and make a glossy surface. Few albumen prints were left unmounted or unfinished in some way.
One might expect that it was the convenience of the developing-out gelatin bromide and chloride papers that appeared in the 1880's that lured photographers away from albumen paper. Actually, bromide papers gained great acceptance for a time, but their exposure, handling and image colour were so foreign to ordinary practice of the time that it was printing-out papers like albumen paper but indeed more convenient and less likely to yellow that finally ended albumen's dominance22. Gelatin and collodion printing-out papers captured the market in the mid-1890's papers whose manufacture in rolls and whose basis in a true sensitized emulsion put an end to an era of handicraft in photographic paper manufacturing, much as the gelatin dry plate had done for negative materials. Many smaller and some of the bigger albumen papermakers were not able to make the technological leap to roll coating and the new emulsion methods.
Pure albumen is not a suitable material for a true sensitized emulsion, since the addition of silver nitrate coagulates the albumin and it can no longer be applied to the paper as a liquid. It was found in 1907 to be possible, however, to make an emulsion with albumen if the coagulated particles were dispersed in another substance, such as a starch solution. This mixture could then be coated onto paper as an emulsion could, and manufacture in rolls was possible, but ultimately proved impractical.
Mixed starch and albumen papers prepared by traditional manual methods first appeared in 1902 and were called "matte-albumen" papers, because the starch created a very matte surface. They were made by many companies and sold under names like Alboidin, Albumat, Albumon, etc.
Now long forgotten, matte-albumen paper was highly acclaimed in its day, and found application as an "artistic" material for professional portrait photographers. Soft and beautiful results were obtained with matte-albumen paper—which could be purchased on twelve different base stocks—and it was often toned with both gold and platinum in progressive steps. After World War I economic conditions in Germany (where it was mainly produced and used) made the material less and less attractive. Trapp & Münch, who had introduced the material in 1902, finally ceased making it in 192923.
With the disappearance of matte-albumen paper, albumen paper in any form passed out of photographic practice, but not out of the history of photography. The millions of surviving albumen prints are not valued merely for their historical or informational content; many are treasured as beautiful works of art, made on a unique printing medium.
I wish to thank Elizabeth Kraus, Mary Lynn Vickers and Winifred Hines of the Research Library of the Eastman Kodak Company, Kodak Park, Rochester, N.Y., and Martha Jenks and Marianne Margolis of the Research Center at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House for their help in making research materials available. Also, I thank Jeffrey Wolin, Director of Reproduction Services at the International Museum of Photography, for his help in reproducing the illustrations.
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