Modern Life

Why old photos and mementos become more precious during tough times

Photos, videos, and keepsakes help us tap into the comforting, hopeful power of nostalgia.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — October 27, 2021

During a road trip up east last summer, I spent hours alongside my mother delving into crumbling file boxes filled with old photos, gala seating charts from the Plaza Hotel, caricatures, and restaurant menus from decades ago belonging to my great grandpa and grandma Gertz, who lived in New York. We imagined what life must have been like for them back then, and reminisced about more recent family gatherings.

This interest in the past is part of a wave of nostalgia that swept the country during COVID-19, with people digging up old family photos, films, and keepsakes as a way to cope with anxiety and uncertainty, and feel more connected to family and friends. 

“We naturally use nostalgia as a way to comfort and energize ourselves,” says Clay Routledge, a leading expert in existential psychology, and a professor of management at North Dakota State University. “When there’s a collective threat, that pushes a lot more people in that direction.”

Researchers have found that nostalgia, or a sentimental longing for the past, can help counter feelings of loneliness, support psychological health and well-being, and even improve relationships. During the lockdown, sales at scrapbook supply company Creative Memories jumped 50%, while a study of 17 trillion songs played on Spotify showed people preferred songs from the 1980s and earlier. posted a 37% increase in subscribers from March to July 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. At the same time, many people have also been creating new mementos for future generations, including COVID-19 road trip photo albums or pandemic time capsules stuffed with items like quarantine grocery lists and remote-learning classwork.

Whether you’re revitalizing old photographs or videos; revisiting special letters or invitations; or creating new items of significance, here are a few ideas on how to preserve family memories and gift new keepsakes your loved ones will cherish.

Digitize old photos and home movies

While stuck at home in New York during the height of COVID-19, Wendy Dykan spent months digitizing and organizing decades-old VHS movies of birthday parties, Passover meals at Grandma’s house, and trips to the beach. In one, her mother cradles Dykan’s newborn brother as beaming grandparents lovingly look on. 

“It gave me something to do outside of just kids and work, which I badly needed,” she says. “Watching my grandparents on video felt very special.”

Trisha Krauss

Revisiting old memories can keep us connected to real people in a social way and tie us to the present.

With HP’s new service, HP Memories, you can have your old photos, home movies, film reels, and cassette tapes expertly digitized. Just order an HP Memories kit, fill the box with your keepsakes, and a few weeks later, you will receive them back along with a convenient link to download the enhanced images, and optionally receive a USB drive with the digital files. At the secure HP Memories facility, all items are tracked and monitored from the time they arrive until they’re returned to you via UPS.


RELATED: Ready to sort through and preserve your old family photos? Start with these six practical steps.


“We take the privilege of working with our customers’ one-of-a-kind memories incredibly seriously,” says Anderson Schoenrock, CEO of Memory Ventures, HP’s partner for HP Memories. “In most cases, we are being trusted with the only copy of a particular memory and we treat them with the utmost care.”

Customize photo books and other keepsakes

Digital service Shutterfly offers book themes like the “What a Year” book or “Best Grandparents Ever.” You can also add family photos to items like tea towels, playing cards, pillows, puzzles, and ceramic coasters. With services like Photowall, you can even turn old family photos into wallpaper murals for your home.

“Photographs can be really reassuring,” says Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, and an expert on nostalgia. “That person in the photograph can be a trigger to remind you of all the good times.”

Artifacts like old family recipes or letters could fade in the light if displayed. Instead, archivists recommend scanning older keepsakes in color at 300 DPI or more, printing the file, and then displaying the printed copy. Electronic files of the keepsakes can also be sent to family members. The original documents should be stored in an acid-free, lignin-free folder.

For preserving your more recent digital photos in print, HP just introduced the HP ENVY Inspire, which enables the ability to print in different sizes like social squares or panorama and automatically add a date and location with two-sided printing. You can get creative with templates to make greeting cards and photo keepsakes using the HP Smart app

Create shared family artifacts

Ami Neiberger-Miller, a writer in the Washington, DC, area, got free access to through her public library and lost herself in family stories as she created custom PowerPoint presentations for family members’ birthdays, complete with old photos, a family tree, and copies of marriage licenses and death certificates. “These projects served both as comforting trips down memory lane and replacements for the real-life events that the pandemic put on hold,” she says. The National Genealogical Society also offers free family tree charts and templates on its website. You can design your own artistic family tree to frame through services like Family Tree Chart

Or, try A Tree of Me, a free, private family social media app for preserving and sharing memories via video or voice recordings or through photos. With the app, you can build a family tree, create a virtual scrapbook, and add comments and emoticons to memories.

Preserve a time capsule for future nostalgia

During the pandemic, many people have been actively preserving memories as they experience them. During virtual school, Cindi Kasner in Houston plastered her dining room wall with “Post It Positives,” sticky notes that her kids Josephine, 8, and Levi, 11, peeled off as they documented experiences they enjoyed each day. Then, she made a book of the notes as a memory of their time together that year, creating an artifact they can revisit in the future. 

“We naturally use nostalgia as a way to comfort and energize ourselves.”

—Clay Routledge, leading expert in existential psychology and professor of management at North Dakota State University

GoNoodle has a video for kids on how to make a time capsule, and there are plenty of free printables and worksheets online. Traditional time capsules are made from steel, but if you’re handy you can also make your own wooden box. Fill it with items like newspaper clippings, photos, and journal pages. Some people bury their time capsule outside, while others place it inside under loose floorboards inside the house.

In Houston, Ada Kyriasoglou Stehl and her kids Erik, 10, and Niki and Charlie, 8, spent time together filling a COVID-19 time capsule with masks and a note about living through a pandemic and placed it inside a kitchen wall as they renovated their home. “If anyone ever demolishes our kitchen, they’ll find what the world was like when we lived here,” Stehl says.

Look ahead as you remember the past

Revisiting old memories can keep us connected to real people in a social way and tie us to the present, Batcho says. We can even create new traditions through nostalgia. For example, some people revisit past holiday cards they’ve sent each year as they unpack their Christmas ornaments and then decorate the tree together.

Routledge notes that while thinking about relatives who’ve passed can be sad, “even that sadness or loss has this sort of redemptive quality. We realize special experiences are often transient, and we’re left with a desire to re-create them and pass traditions on.”

He adds that photos and mementos also give us hope for the future, that we can make similar happy memories ourselves sometime soon. 

“Nostalgia has that inspirational power,” he says. “It motivates us to have those experiences again.”