You’ll Never Guess What Turned Up in My 89-Year-Old Mom’s Garage

Tedious garage-cleaning task yields a family treasure

It had come to that point. The evidence of 58 years of living in the same home had squeezed Mom’s car out of its garage, and now winter was threatening. My husband and I picked a commitment-free Saturday and began the attack, sifting stacks and piles into bags and files.

Toward the back of one shelf, I discovered an old cardboard radio box. I guessed that the original contents had been the property of my grandfather, a lifelong innovator and inventor who built his own radios before radios came on the market. Lifting the lid, I spied many small, yellow boxes measuring about 3-by-3½ inches. Each box bore cancelled one- and three-cent stamps and had been neatly addressed with a fountain pen in my grandfather’s hand to various Eastman Kodak centers nationwide.

Your family films are important, and not just to you

Once back home, I eagerly spread out my find on our ping pong table. Inside each box were miniature metal reels of 8mm film about 3/8 inch wide, some in silver metal tins. I counted forty boxes dating from the late 1930s through 1950. Some were scribbled with hints of the treasure inside, such as “kids playing,” “birthday picnic,” “Zion and Bryce,” and “curls.” I carefully numbered and listed the contents of the films, keeping my find a secret from my mom and hoping to create a surprise.

The Center for Home Movies informs us that “your family films are important, and not just to you. . . . Home movies can hold great interest for a much wider public, including local historians, international scholars, and artists.” Customs, cultural traditions, even clothing styles and background details can be of value. (Who wouldn’t like to see original movies of home life in the 1700s?)

The Center for Home Movies has a home movie registry and sponsors an annual worldwide “Home Movie Day” to celebrate the viewing, sharing, and saving of film heritage. Their website includes questions to ask before having films transferred. They remind us that digitizing or transferring films is not preservation, given the rapid evolution of media formats and their unknown durability over time.

The first rule of preservation is “preserve the originals” because they are the truest version of the content. To preserve films, you should keep them in a cool but dry environment and house them in containers that allow them to “breathe” because films need air to prevent their deterioration by entrapped gases. Shoe boxes with loose-fitting lids work well.

A number of online transfer services are available to ship films to for processing, such as iMemories.com, DVDYourMemories.com, LegacyDigital.net, and others. You may also find a few transfer businesses locally. Stores such as Costco, Walmart, and Sam’s Club can send films, videotapes, slides, and so on to a common service center (YesVideo) for processing, charging a flat fee for the first 25 feet of film, with a set fee per subsequent foot. If films have no sound, background music can be added.

Our family got together to watch the recovered films

I had no experience with getting vintage 8-mm film transferred, but the films I found seemed to be in good condition, no doubt aided by the dry Western climate. Within several weeks of my placing an order, the films were returned, digitized onto a DVD, and available to view online. A family gathering was planned for the descendants of Ray and Cecil Potts for the premier showing, and it was a fun surprise especially for their two surviving 91- and 89-year-old children, who shared stories triggered by images of their youthful adventures. As older generations were brought to life and new connections made, a tedious garage-cleaning task truly had yielded a treasure.

 

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