Amazing Volunteer: Allen brings historic glass negatives to life

by Museum Specialist Megan Hunter/Frontier Army Museum

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles featuring some of the outstanding Fort Leavenworth volunteers. Fort Leavenworth Volunteer Recognition Ceremony at 10 a.m. April 18 at the Frontier Conference Center.

The Border Troop Museum at Fort Leavenworth houses nearly 6,500 items. Some of the larger artifacts such as uniforms, carts and small arms are on display for guests to view.

“South End of Main Parade” Photographic Glass Plate, circa 1875. Many of the small details of the photograph, including the scene of Dragoon Barracks, a rifle-toting soldier and horses pulling a cart, would not be clear without Brian Jobs’s volunteer Allen to digitize the image glass plate. Collections of the Frontier Army Museum, CCN: 81974

But behind the scenes are artifacts that are rarely seen. One of them includes a collection of nearly 500 glass plate negatives.

That’s where Brian Allen comes in.

Allen, who began volunteering at the museum in December 2022, is an assistant professor in the Department of Joint, Interagency and Multinational Operations at the Command and General Staff School. With a love for photography, Allen approached the museum to inquire about its collection of glass plate photographs and negatives. He asked to see and photograph the collection. After his first visit, Allen presented the museum with dozens of beautiful digital photographs. That’s where the volunteer project to digitize negative glass plates started.

What is a negative glass plate?

A “negative” refers to an image created when light is focused through the camera lens. The light hits the light-sensitive material, which for the negative of the glass plate includes a chemical solution that is spread over the glass plate. The image that occurs is opposite, or negative, to what the human eye sees.

In terms of glass plate negatives, there are two kinds.

Photographic Glass Plate, “J.YATES & PHILLIP SCHRIEPER JUNE ’85,” 1885. Collections of the Frontier Soldiers Museum, CCN: 82847

The first type is called a wet plate. Invented by Frederick Scoff Archer in the 1850s, it uses glass rather than paper to achieve sharp images. However, this method requires exposure and processing which must be completed while the plate is still wet. This sometimes causes problems such as smudging or corrosion.

In the 1870s Dr. Richard L. Maddox invented dry plates of agar. This version of the negative plate is more durable and easy to move. They were in common use between the 1880’s and the late 1920’s.

However, with both methods, the glass plate is heavy but brittle.

Allen has donated his time to turn these historical negatives into viewable images for museums.

“I put the negatives on a table lamp, which is an inverted LED ceiling light my co-worker made. After taking a picture with my smartphone, I use an app that turns the negative image into a positive,” said Allen.

The digital image is shared with museum staff who then resize the image and attach it to the digital artifact record in the museum’s database. The database stores all artifact information including research, object history and images. This database is used to track artifact data and for research purposes.

Allen commented on how he would like to see the photos used in the future.

“Once we’ve got all the plates in the catalog, I hope to be able to make paper prints of our favorites using the original processes and materials they would have back in the 1880s.”

Allen has digitized nearly 400 glass plate negatives in the collection so far.

Details create the big picture

Negative digitization reveals some interesting things. For example, one of the pictures shows two little girls in a field at the south end of the Main Parade in Fort Leavenworth. On the left is a fence and a building. Because the images were photographed in high resolution, museum staff were able to zoom in on background details. On the left, the building is identified as Dragoon Barracks, which no longer exists. In front of the barracks were three men working in the field, maybe laying the sidewalks. A woman is seen walking along a wooden fence. Further in the background to the left are two soldiers, one of whom has a shotgun slung over his shoulder. In the center background is a horse pulling a cart. On the right side of the picture are some workers in the field. This small detail would not be so obvious without Allen’s work.

Many of the photographic negative plates in the collection consist of soldiers in uniform posing alone or in groups. Studio images include decorative backgrounds and props such as chairs and small arms and army equipment. Many of these images consist of white enlisted soldiers and officers; however, some drawings document the entry of black soldiers into the Army in the late 19th century.

Photographic Glass Plates, “BB Chamberlain,” 1879. The image on the right is a negative of the one on the left. The image is of an enlisted man wearing a greatcoat, gloves and a muskrat cap. The original winter hat of 1876 was made of sealskin, but it was brittle when wet and was soon replaced with a muskrat. Collections of the Frontier Army Museum, CCN: 82890

One negative glass plate in the collection is Sgt. Edward D. Gibson taken in 1879. This image shows two types of clothing that resulted in the 1876 uniform change to the dress board. In the photograph, Gibson holds a campaign cap with “Brasher” spinner vents and wears a pair of reinforced trousers, both showing prongs cavalry. His vest, shirt and watch chain shown in the picture are private civilian purchases.

Early in his career, Gibson served in the Tenth Cavalry, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. After 30 years in the Army, Gibson retired to Vancouver Barracks as a sergeant in 1900. At the time of retirement, the army’s four African-American regiments had higher reenlistment than white regiments.

Stories like these bring artefacts to life and help establish a connection with the past. Digitizing and researching artefacts allows museum staff to make these stories available to the public, in physical and virtual exhibitions.

Photographic Glass Plate, “SGT ED Gibson,” 1879. Left side is negative of right side. On the side is engraved “6 Sargent ED GIBSON Pd 1879.” Gibson served with the Tenth Cavalry, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, and retired as a sergeant in 1900 after 30 years in the Army. Collections of the Border Troop Museum, CCN:82900

Allen said he enjoyed his time at the museum.

“I appreciate the enthusiasm of the museum staff and their hard work to make these artifacts available,” he said. “A collection of photo negatives gives me the opportunity to contribute to that endeavour.”

In addition to volunteering with the museum, Allen volunteers with other organizations around the post, including the Fort Leavenworth Stray Facility, taking shelter dogs on much needed trips.

Visit for printable page layouts and the Fort Leavenworth Lamp archive.
Visit for printable page layouts and the Fort Leavenworth Lamp archive.

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