Old Photos Are Not Worth Anything

Dear writer of the Forbes Magazine article, “Your Top 10 Objects Your Kids Don’t Want,”

I just read your article. In it, you outline the objects in your home that you feel one’s children will not want passed on to them. You state the list was inspired by conversations with your 30-year old son and boomer clients and their millennial heirs. I must admit, I was a little dubious going in, as I know that millennials, for all their love of tiny homes and Marie Kondo lifestyles, are also responsible for the resurgence of vinyl records and shooting with film cameras. Pretty sure Leica gives a beanie away with every camera purchase. If they don’t, they should.

But, on to your list.

The list of objects you say our children do not want includes things like steamer trunks, sewing machines, porcelain figurines, silver-plated objects, “heavy dark antique furniture,” Persian rugs, linens, sterling silver flatware, crystal wine services and fine porcelain dinnerware. Some of these items made sense; some didn’t. And I was okay, until I read this object:

Paper Ephemera: family snapshots, old greeting cards and postcards. 

I admit it, I had to Google “ephemera.” The name sounds like the love child of “pheromones” and “enemas” and I knew that couldn’t be right. Turns out, it isn’t: 

plural noun: ephemera; noun: ephemerum
things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.
items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.

You then go on to inform your readers that, and I quote: Old photos are not worth anything unless the sitter is a celebrity or linked with an important historical event or the subject is extremely macabre, like a death memorial image.”

Upon reading that last sentence, I left my computer in search of a couple Advil and some vodka. I knew I wouldn’t make it through without their help. I was already feeling a pain behind my left eye. And, having consumed both, I thought I could walk away from the article, but alas, the words you wrote kept rattling around in my head: 


The sentiment made me sad. Not that it’s true, mind you, but that you think it; that you can hold in your hands family photographs, YOUR HISTORY, and feel it not worth anything. It’s so incredibly sad that even the thought is enough to kill a kitten. And certainly if YOU feel that strongly about their lack of worth, no wonder your grown son doesn’t care. I mean, hello? McFly?

You don’t care about preserving your family’s history in photographs. I hope you’re happy. You just killed me.

So, dear writer, allow me to enlighten you. You might want to sit down and grab a sandwich. I’m not known for brevity and this is one of my favorite topics, so it could take awhile. 

Old photos aren’t worth anything if you have no interest in preserving your family’s history. That’s a fact, Jack. (I actually don’t know your name, dear writer, but it would be so great if it actually was Jack.)

If you don’t care about passing down your family history to your children, then odds are really great, Jack, that your children aren’t going to care, either. They will view their family history much the same way they view a sewing machine. Namely, who gives a rat’s ass? Unless, of course, you have a celebrity in your family, in which case, you suggest we hold on to the photographs. Got a famous person in the family album? Grandma tied one on with Gertrude Stein? Uncle Amos is actually Famous Amos? Then, according to you, THOSE photos are worth something. But an average, ordinary family? They aren’t worth anything, unless they are memento mori images: photographs of people asleep in death. 

This is Aunt Tilly. We should have taken the photo sooner, but we were all busy, and, well, Tilly couldn’t wait. Anyway, we’re keeping this photo.
It’s more valuable than photos of Grandpa in WWII.

What the what?

Basically, Jack, what you’re saying is Kim Kardashian’s family photos are worth something, but the countless old photos showing men going to or returning from war, grandparents on their wedding day, great grandparents plowing their fields, parents as they ran about on toddlers’ legs, aren’t worth anything. 

Well, unless they were photographed after death. 

Is that what you’re saying, Jack?

Jack, I’m now officially worried about you. 

I urge you, Jack, to think about all the history that has been passed down through photographs; all the things we know because we can SEE them in an old photograph. All the wonderful, ordinary, every day events in the lives or our family that we get to witness in that time machine called a PRINTED PHOTOGRAPH. When we discard old family photographs, we discard a piece of us; we throw away our history. We say it doesn’t matter. What’s more, we tell future generations that it doesn’t matter. 

Now, to be fair to you, Jack, you did offer the remedy of taking all of one’s family snapshots and having them made into digital files. You also offered the solution of selling them to greeting card publishers.
To the first suggestion, I say yes, absolutely, back up those prints with a digital copy, but that doesn’t mean discard the photograph. It’s lasted a lot longer than your children and, if cared for properly, will outlive that digital file…that was placed somewhere…on a drive…that you can’t open 10 years from now…or can’t find.

To the second suggestion I say, what is wrong with you?

Listen, I understand about living simply and paring down the items we own to only those we truly love. But really, Jack, shouldn’t one of the items we truly love be our family photographs because they are directly linked to the history of who we are? Answer carefully–a kitten’s life is on the line.

(And to MY children: I know you value our family’s old photographs. I love that you love them. I adore you both and treasure how you respect your family. But so help me God, if you EVER sell my photos to a greeting card company, I will haunt you so bad it will make the movie Poltergeist look like Casper the friendly Ghost.)

3 Comments on Old Photos Are Not Worth Anything

  1. On the death of my brother, I sifted through half of the 16,000 slides my dad made and left behind for us. About 400 were shown the weekend the 5 remaining brothers, spouses, kids and grandkids got together for the memorial. The stories, laughter and tears the photos evoked tied the family together in new and stronger ways. One photo shows my brother, Charlie at age 6, finishing off beer left behind by adults at a wedding reception. In the background was my late mother who spotted the activity. She was howling with laughter. Nah! Photos aren’t worth anything.

    • Andrew, I love that you and your family had all those slides. I have quite a huge slide collection myself, courtesy of my dad. (I think it was a “dad thing.”) And you know they are important, but you don’t realize just HOW important until they are all you have left. I know that firsthand, too. And Charlie sounds like one heck of a brother, even at the age of 6! xoxo

  2. Comme vous avez raison, Missy ! J’ai une plaque au collodion représentant mon arrière-arrière-arrière grand père, où il a probablement le même âge que moi (72 ans aujourd’hui), et depuis cet aïeul, tous les “mâles” de la famille ont pris des photos. C’est un trésor que je sauve tant bien que mal, et j’espère que mes enfants et petits enfants sauront en prendre soin en ces temps d’images électroniques fugaces.
    Pardonnez-moi d’écrire en français, je n’ai pas le courage de vous infliger mon anglais déplorable.
    Best regards,

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