Vintage photography has an incredible way of preserving moments in time. Likewise, time capsules serve to hold onto pieces of history. French photographer Mathieu Stern struck gold when he found a time capsule from the year 1900. It held items that belonged to a little girl, including two undeveloped photos. Using his expertise, Mathieu developed the negatives, revealing images that are more than a century old. Read on to see what the time capsule held.
Discovering A Secret In His Family's Home
Mathieu discovered the time capsule in his family's old home. He went down to the basement, where he entered a separate room filled with antique furniture. One of the pieces was a wooden cabinet, inside of which were several small drawers.
In the second drawer, he found a metal box the size of a book. He knew where to look because a family member had uncovered the item previously. They didn't think much of it but knew that Mathieu might feel differently.
The Time Capsule Was From 1900
Mathieu creates YouTube videos that walk the viewer through his photography process. In some of the videos, he makes use of historical cameras. Mathieu's interest in vintage items is what tipped off his relative that he may want to check out this time capsule.
The metal box features unique detailing that Mathieu was able to research. Based on his findings, he concluded that the small time capsule dates back to the year 1900! Its contents reaffirmed this belief.
Inside Were A Little Girl's Belongings
As soon as Mathieu opened up the time capsule, it became clear that it had belonged to a little girl. The contents included paper dolls, a pen, a coin, and other small knickknacks.
It was also obvious that these items were from the early 1900s. Though Mathieu's relative had uncovered the box at one point, for the most part, it had remained in the dark over the past century. No one had thought to do what Mathieu was about to attempt.
Paper Dolls Dating Back To The 1700s
According to Collector's Weekly, paper dolls were originally satirical puppets used in the 1700s to make fun of the noble classes. The earliest paper doll made specifically for children arrived in London circa 1810.
The paper dolls often came with chapbooks designed to teach children lessons. They remained popular well into the 1900s, so it's no wonder this little girl had them. She must have admired her paper doll to store it away in a time capsule.
A Mysterious Envelope
Below all of the trinkets, at the bottom of the metal box, was this envelope. It immediately piqued Mathieu's interest since it was the only item that was wrapped. Plus, it was heavier than the other things.
For something that's been stored for more than a century, the envelope remained in great shape. It's clear that few people had handled the paper, which made it all the more intriguing. Once he peeked inside, it all made sense.
Two Glass Negatives
Inside the envelope were perhaps the most impressive items in the entire time capsule. They were glass negatives! The average person may not immediately recognize the negatives, but Mathieu certainly did since he's an experienced photographer.
Right away, Mathieu knew that he would need specific items to develop the photos. Getting the images to come through required a century-old process that would take skill and research. Fortunately, Mathieu was just the person to pull it off.
Looking At The Negative Over Light
The first thing that Mathieu did was use a backlight to reveal the image in the negative. Right away, it became clear that this was an image of a cat. Being that the other items in the time capsule belonged to a little girl, we can deduce that this may have been her pet.
It's adorable to think that a little girl, who would be well over 100 years old today, wanted to preserve her precious kitty.
Cyanotype Is Almost 200 Years Old
Mathieu decided that the best way to develop the photos would be by using the cyanotype method. Discovered in 1842, cyanotype is a process that involves the chemicals ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide.
The negative can be printed onto an absorbent material by applying the solution and keeping it in a dark place to dry. The print emerges after being exposed to UV light. The technique was originally used to make replicas of notes and diagrams.
Preparing The Paper
To successfully use the cyanotype process, Mathieu needed to prepare an absorbant material for print. He used a particular piece of paper, on which he would print the glass negative's image.
First, he needed to coat the paper with the cyanotype solution. He did so by pouring the two chemicals into a plastic container and mixing them with a sponge. He then used the sponge to apply the mixture onto the paper with long, even strokes.
Applying The Negative To The Paper
Mathieu let the paper dry in darkness for 20 minutes before moving on to the next step. He then grabbed a wooden box that is specially-made for this process. He placed the glass negative into the box, and it fit perfectly.
Mathieu had cut the paper so that it was the same size as the glass negative, placing it on top. The wooden box was exposed on one side so that the negative could take in light.
Locking The Box
The wooden box came in handy to securely hold the paper and the negative together. This way, Mathieu could be sure that the print would come out clean and crisp, not blurred. He closed the back of the wooden frame, securing it with two latches.
Now, Mathieu could pick up the box and move it around without worrying about the glass negative and the paper becoming separated. Like a photo frame, the glass negative was exposed on one side for the next step.
Exposing The Negative To UV Light
Next, Mathieu turned on a UV light that he had positioned only about a foot above the floor. He then set the wooden frame face up so that the negative faced the UV light.
Since there was such a high concentration of UV light, he only had to wait about half an hour before retrieving the box. From there, he carefully removed the paper and the negative. He separated the two, revealing that the print had worked.
Soaking The Print In Water
Though Mathieu had successfully copied the negative onto the paper, there were still a few steps needed to clear up the image. First, he submerged the paper in water. Right away, the obscure photo sharpened up, revealing an adorable cat.
The water causes the colors to reverse, meaning that the negative becomes a positive image. The process, called washing, is amazing to watch as you can see the photo coming to life before your eyes.
Adding Hydrogen Peroxide
The water bath serves to oxidize the iron chemicals, sharpening the image. Leaving the photo in the water for just the right amount of time is crucial to ensure that the image comes out as clear as possible.
A popular trick that Mathieu took advantage of is adding a few drops of hydrogen peroxide to the water. Doing so speeds up the oxidization process so that the image develops in mere seconds, as opposed to days.
The Finished Result
Cyanotypes are distinguishable by their blue shade. The oxidization serves to brighten the highlights of the photo and deepen the blue, enhancing the photo's contrast. When the chemicals are first applied to the paper, they appear yellow.
You know that the process is complete when the paper is completely free of all yellow and the image appears crisp. Oxalic acid can be used to further intensify the contrast. Conversely, sodium carbonate can fade an overexposed image.
Moving On To The Second Negative
Having found success with the first negative, Mathieu couldn't forget about the second one. As with the first, he backlit this image to try to get an idea of what the picture could be.
To the left is a clearly distinguishable cat that may be the same feline we saw in the first photo. However, the being to the right is less obvious when you first look at it. Once the negative was developed it all made sense, though.
Revealing The Second Photo
Mathieu repeated the same process with the second image that he had done with the first. He started by coating the paper in a solution and letting it dry. Then he placed the glass negative into the wooden box against the open frame.
From there, he placed the prepared paper over the glass negative and secured the wooden box. He placed it frame-up underneath a UV light and removed the paper 30 minutes later, placing it in a tub of water.
More Beloved Pets
The second image confirmed Mathieu's early suspicions: this girl was definitely an animal-lover. Not only did she have one beloved cat, but she also had a kitten and a dog!
Of all the photos this little girl could have kept in her time capsule, she chose just two images that showcase all of her pets. The sweet dog is lying in the grass, curled up with a kitten. The tiny feline looks like the offspring of the cat from the first image.
Returning Color To The Photo
As incredible as it was printing the century-old photographs, it wasn't enough for Mathieu. He wanted to restore the image as much as possible so that we could see what the moment would have looked like originally.
To accomplish this, Mathieu uploaded the image into Photoshop. From there, he could apply different colors and shades to transform the image. The finished product makes the year 1900 seem like it was yesterday, showing how effective time capsules can be.
Capturing A Century-Old Moment
Mathieu conducted some research to find reference photographs that served as his launching pad. He could then copy the color of an object and use that exact shade to essentially paint the photograph.
The finished product is remarkable. The beautiful image is a testiment to both Mathieu's skill and the technological advances that have transformed photography. There's no way that this little girl could have known the picture of her cat would come out this well, even 120 years later.