Metadata is often thought of as either describing objects (e.g., paper or digital records, library books, physical assets, etc), or forming part of a digital object (e.g., system generated metadata or in the case of most digital photographs, EXIF metadata).
Before the arrival of computer-based databases (and even after), many companies embedded codes in their manufactured products, a kind of embedded physical metadata. These codes usually recorded (and continue to record) information about batches, allowing them to identify when and where it was made. This information can assist with manufacturing recalls.
This post describes, through a personal story, how metadata embedded in two very old rolls of negatives were used to identify their origins. It also underlines the importance of asking older people about objects they may have in their possession before they pass on.
Starting point – two unprinted rolls of negatives
Among my father’s possessions when he died in 2012 were three old AGFA aluminium film canisters containing 35 mm black and white negatives.
One of these canisters contained two rolls of Eastman Kodak film. One of them showed a family and their garden, the other roll was of a parade in Japan. A small western girl appeared in both, linking them somehow.
It was obvious that at least one of the rolls contained photos taken in Japan. My father had been stationed in Japan from November 1945 to March 1946 so I assumed that was the connection. However, none of the photos in those two rolls had been printed or placed in my father’s Japan album. The album contained a range of photos from various locations in Japan that he had bought from other servicemen as he didn’t have a camera at the time.
In early 2021, a military historian based in Japan identified that the parade appeared to be in Yokohama, where my father had been stationed.
But something wasn’t making sense. The photographs showed a well-dressed crowd on what appeared to be a warm day in a normal city. My father’s letters from November to December 1945 pained a different picture – he said that it was a bitterly cold winter and the locals were mostly destitute and living in shanties as most of the city had been reduced to rubble:
Soon we saw bomb damage. Piles of smashed cars, and flattened buildings. There are acres of flattened and bare spaces … There are no shops, all having been smashed up and flattened. (Extract from a letter dated 19 November 1945)
To try to find more information about the parade, I made contact with a local Yokohama resident who blogs at Weekend Walks in Yokohama, Shinya Ota. He also expressed doubt that these photos were taken in 1945 (especially given the photo above). He noted that the annual port opening parades did not re-commence until the early 1950s.
So when were these photos taken, and why did my father have them?
Looking for clues in the metadata
I decided to look more closely at the negatives and found some initial clues. Both rolls of film were made by Eastman Kodak and both were nitrate film.
According to the website Preservation and Treatment: ‘The use of nitrate base in 35 mm still camera film ended in 1938. Eastman ended the use of nitrate base in commercial and professional sheet film in 1939.’
Kodak phased out all nitrate base film by 1951. So it seemed likely that the negatives were dated from before 1939.
The next clue was the small code next to the word ‘Kodak’. One roll had a ‘+’ and a small square, the other roll had a circle. Note also the perforations in the film and the indentation above the word ‘Kodak’; this would provide a clue to the type of camera that was likely used.
The table below, part of a larger table that can be found on the internet, shows the manufacturing year of Kodak film and also where they were made – all the film on the left column was made in Rochester USA.
So now I had two dates for the rolls of negatives – 1935 and 1936. These rolls were likely imported to Japan from the USA at some point, either by the person with the camera or a local importer/re-seller. My father could not have taken these photos (he was only 10 in 1935) and there was no obvious family connection.
Additional clues on the film
I sought advice about the film from photographic specialists at photrio.com. They picked up two additional clues.
The first was the perforation or ‘sprocket holes’ along the edge of the film roll. These appeared to be very similar in dimension to the Bell and Howell (BH) design described in the Wikipedia page ‘Film Perforations‘. Although a different Kodak Standard (KS) was introduced in the 1920s, it apparently failed to displace the BH perforations. It is not known why the two rolls of Kodak negatives did not use the Kodak Standard but it might have something to do with the camera that was used.
The second clue, which may be also reflected in the yellowish circular marking on the film, was the camera that was used. According to the Wikipedia page about 135 film: ‘In 1934, Kodak introduced a 135 daylight-loading single-use cassette. This cassette was engineered so that it could be used in both Leica and Zeiss Ikon Contax cameras along with the camera for which it was invented, namely the Kodak Retina camera.’
It seemed very likely that my negatives were taken on one of these cameras using the relatively new single-use cassette film. The perforations allowed the film to be used on two other popular cameras at the time.
Additional clues in the photos
There were two other sources of information in the negatives, or rather in the photographs themselves.
The roll of photographs showing the family was dated 1935, while the roll of parade photographs was dated 1936. Of course, the 1935 roll could have been used in 1936.
One of my sisters reminded me about a single sentence in my father’s life story that suggested he had found these negatives in the British Consulate in Yokohama when he was assigned there as a guard in December 1945. The Consulate building had been closed since 1940 and was now re-occupied by some British military personnel. I had probably overlooked this line and just assumed that the negatives dated from when he was there.
I now realised that these rolls were already around 10 years old when my father obtained them.
Based on various visual clues, the photographs of the family were almost certainly taken at the British Consul-General’s then residence, likely at Yamate-cho 18 in 1935 or 1936 where the Consul-General had lived since 1920 (and possibly also after the 1923 earthquake). A new residence was opened in 1939 and these photos were definitely not taken in that building.
So, the people in the photographs are likely to be the British Consul-General, his wife and other family members (all yet to be confirmed). A small girl in these photos also appears in three of the parade photos (with a group of Japanese, likely the Consul-General’s staff), providing a link between the two.
The photographs of the parade offered a range of additional clues, including buildings, banners and flags, uniforms and the way onlookers were dressed, all indicating that the photographs were taken some time between 1935 and 1938 and likely in April or May when the weather was warmer.
The main lesson from this exercise was the reminder to ask grandparents, parents or other elderly relatives about the details in or of any objects and photographs that may be handed down – who is who in photographs, where were they taken, where is the source of a object (painting, vase, clock, other art work) and so on.
The second lesson was that rolls of film may contain metadata clues, beyond the content of the actual photos, that can help identify their date, source and perhaps even the camera that was used.
Feature image: Tsuchiya Koitsu, ‘Yokohama Sankei Garden’, 1936 (various sources)