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An Arresting Collection – Glass Plates

Written by George Dill-Jones, VPM Curatorial Volunteer

The Vancouver Police Museum has recently completed a 3-year digitization and rehousing project. Over 400 glass plate negatives are now scanned, stored in archival quality materials, and available for research!

VPM Archival photo N01958

VPM Archival photo N01958

If you’re interested, we’d like to tell you a bit about what them:

History of Glass Plate Negatives

Glass plate negatives, the precursor to plastic film rolls, were the primary medium on which photographic images were captured from the 1850’s until the 1920’s.

Although photographic processes were first developed in the early nineteenth century, it was not until the 1850’s when Frederick Scott Archer developed the first wet plate glass negative that a widespread interest in photography was established.

In use from 1851 until the 1880’s, wet glass plate negatives were produced by coating a plate with collodion, a solution made of cellulose nitrate and ether. The glass plate was then put into a bath of silver nitrate in order to transform the collodion into more photosensitive silver iodide. At this stage, the photographer had about five minutes to expose the plate in a camera before the solution dried. Finally, the wet plate was developed in a dark room and coated with a varnish for protection. In the 1870’s, the wet plate method was abandoned in favour of the more convenient dry plate method.

First developed in 1871 by Richard Leach Maddox, the dry plate method involved the application of a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion to the plates. The plates were then allowed to dry and could be used for up to several months, unlike the wet plates that had to be used immediately. The glass plates in our collection are of the gelatin dry variety. Dry plates were used extensively up until the 1920’s, when the more convenient celluloid roll film became widespread.

Our Project

Original packaging


Original packaging










Most of the glass plate negatives in the museum’s collection consist of mug shots and personnel photos taken around 1910 to 1930. In order to preserve the negatives for the future and to facilitate easier access to the images, we felt that it was important to get high resolution digital scans. Not only does this make them easier to view and research, it also reduces the need to handle the originals, meaning that they can stay safe and well preserved in their archival materials.

The glass plates were removed from their original boxes and scanned and saved as both positive and negative images. Each glass plate was given a unique number and any information, including the condition of the plate (for example, was it broken, are scratches or fingerprints present), and anything written on it (such as the names of individuals) was noted and added to a database for future reference. Once the images were saved and the data recorded, the glass plates were each rehoused in individual paper sleeves and placed in archival boxes for storage.

Lots of padding and archival boxes will keep the plates safe for decades to come

Archival envelopes ensure that the plates are protected from acidic materials

Now What?

We’ve very happy to have completed this digitization project. It’s nice that we’ve made new items available for research and use, and that the originals are being housed in a way that will keep them around for much longer than they would have been in their original boxes. But in some ways the work has just begun!

Who are these people? What stories can these photos tell? For the mug shot photos, we cannot wait to find out why they were arrested! There is a lot of research ahead of us…

The use and publication of mugshot photos is tricky. Just because someone was arrested, does not necessarily mean that they did anything wrong. Innocent until proven guilty right? So names and any other identifiers for the mug shots will have to remain restricted unless we can find documentation that shows that the person was actually charged with an offence – in which case the information is in the public domain.

But before we dive back into our history books and archives, here’s a quick word from the museum’s curator:

“We hold these items in trust for the people of Vancouver, and it’s a real success to show that we’ve met the highest standards of care and accessibility for them. Thanks to the hard work by our collection volunteers – namely Anna Tidlund and George Dill-Jones – the story of Vancouver has become a bit more complete.”

There’s always lots going on here at the Museum, so make sure you stop by to see what’s new. And if this project sounds like the type of thing you might want to get involved with, don’t hesitate to check out our volunteer page!

Some of our Favourite Photos


VPM Archival Photo N01583


VPM Archival Photo N01535


VPM Archival Photo N01580


VPM Archival Photo N01700


VPM Archival Photo N01863


VPM Archival Photo N01921

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