Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Do We Need to Preserve Films? A Brief History of Nitrate (Part II) -- February 17, 2010

This post is part of For the Love of Film, The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films ( and The Self-Styled Siren ( In Part I, I talked about the history of nitrocellulose-based celluloid and its instability, illustrated with some newspaper articles. In Part II, I add a smattering of examples.

I don't think there was any question that nitrate-based celluloid was flammable, but apparently there was some question whether it was explosive. An untitled item from the 01-June-1905 New York Tribune indicates that celluloid movies weren't the only things that could blow up.

Whether celluloid is explosive or not is a question regarding which there is some disagreement. In a short article on the composition of the substance in "Johnson's Encyclopaedia" Professor C. F. Chandler declares that it is made of guncotton and camphor. He does not there refer to the possibility of its being dangerous, but in a letter addressed to a company that has a commercial interest in the matter he has expressed the opinion that it is fully as safe as light textile fabrics, straw goods and laces. Light is thrown on this apparent inconsistency by Charles E. Munroe, of Washington, a government adviser in regard to explosives. Gun cotton is only one of several pyroxylins, made by treating vegetable fibre with nitric and sulphuric acids. Some are explosive, he says, and some are not. He regards the particular pyroxylin used in the manufacture of celluloid as non-exploaive, but he remarks that accidents sometimes occur in consequence of the ignition of the vapor of ether or alcohol which has been employed in the production of celluloid. Utterances by men of such standing as Chandler and Munroe deserve consideration; but this is undeniable: A number of firemen were hurt by an explosion in a building in Broome-st. a few days ago, and the building was popularly known as a factory in which celluloid combs were made. If celluloid did not cause the mischief, what did? Again, why should the authorities of Massachusetts, in regulating the use of cinematographs, prescribe that the celluloid films employed therewith shall be inclosed in a metal box?

An excerpt from a 09-May-1909 New York Tribune article on motion picture censorship mentions problems besides immorality that were caused by movies:

But the lightning express growth of moving pictures has brought varied evils in its train. They thronged into tenement houses and into any vacant store, and as they employ a highly inflammable material in the celluloid film through which the picture is projected there was obvious danger from fire. Sanitary requirements were disregarded, police protection was ignored and the programmes themselves were pretty much a business of catch-as-catch-can.

People were aware that nitrate film would not only burn and explode, but it was also prone to shrinking, which could render prints unprojectable. This article may describe an early example of film preservation and restoration.

From the 22-October-1921 New York Tribune

Cecil M. Hepworth, pioneer British film producer, will arrive in this country on October 24, bringing with him a pictured chronicle of events of the past twenty-three years, covering in part the reigns of three English monarchs -- Victoria, King Edward and King George. It is entitled "Through Three Reigns." It illustrates in a graphic manner what the motion picture camera can do as a recorder of historical events for posterity. Mr. Hepworth is perhaps the oldest motion picture producer in the world. Although he is still a young man, he was producing pictures away back in 1894. The negatives of these interesting events were carefully stored in the Hepworth studio.

Naturally the celluloid film on which many of them were taken has slightly shrunk in the course of years, but Mr. Hepworth has overcome that difficulty and the result is a fascinating if almost uncanny picture which reveals such "Ghosts" as the return of the British troops after the South African war; the funeral procession of Queen Victoria; the coronation procession of King Edward; the Henley regatta in 1899; one of the first motor cars, and the introduction of the divided skirt in the women's first bicycling event.

This is the first opportunity which the public has had of seeing history in such remote perspective by means of the motion picture camera, and it certainly should set one thinking of the educational uses to which the camera can and should be put. What an aid to the history writers of the future generations it will be to have recourse to the files of motion picture film for verification of their chronicles.

Luke McKernan of the wonderful blog The Bioscope ( reports that "Through Three Reigns" has survived.

I wonder if this 1897 effort at film preservation would have been successful?

From the 23-April-1897 Hopkinsville Kentuckian

The lively optical instrument with many names but known in England as the animatograph is to be used to preserve for posterity living pictures of Princess Maud's wedding, the derby won by the prince of Wales the coming jubilee of the queen and several types of London street scenes. The celluloid films bearing the views will be inclosed in several tubes and ought to be good for many reproductions a thousand years from now.

Luke McKernan reports that the tubes are not known to have survived. Based on the use of the name animatograph, he surmises that these films were by pioneer Robert Paul. Paul's derby film and various London street scenes have survived and are available on DVD.

Here are a few more examples of theater fires. I take interest in these stories because I used to be emergency team floor warden at work. Notice the common practice of someone yelling "Fire" and everyone else panicking. Both bad ideas if you ever find yourself in a fire.

From the 26-February-1906 Los Angeles Herald.

Special to the Herald.

ALTON, Ill., Feb. 25.— Four hundred children, who were being entertained this evening with a moving picture show in St. Mary's school hall, were thrown into a panic by the accidental ignition of a roll of celluloid films.

John Scherrer of Chicago, who gives exhibitions of views of the passion play, Oberammergau, was in charge. Slamming the lid shut he started to run from the hall, but could not get out because of a jam of children at the three exits.

The stairway at the south end of the hall, toward which they rushed, became crowded with children, who fell down the steps and rolled over each other. It is estimated that about fifty were injured by being trampled upon, but none was seriously hurt and no bones were broken.

An exit at the back of the hall was locked and a number of children drilled to seek that place of escape made a rush for it but could not get out.

From the 29-December-1908 New York Tribune. Fire escape wired shut? Bad idea.

Eighty persons in a moving picture place at No. 180 Thompson street were thrown into a panic at 8 o'clock last night, when the celluloid film in the picture machine caught fire and burned like powder. To make matters worse, the spectators who tried to escape by a rear exit leading into a yard, found their way barred by a wire netting. Several men threw their bodies against the screen, and it finally gave way, permitting the temporary prisoners to escape.

Five cents is the price of admission to the show. which is on the ground floor. The building is three stories in height, the two upper floors being occupied by the Tucker Athletic Club. Last night, while a number of persons, including men, women and children, were in the place, and Mme. Rossi, a vaudeville performer, and her husband were on the stage at the rear of the hall, a celluloid film in the box of the operator caught fire from a spark from the moving picture machine, and set fire to the woodwork of the box.

The operator, Rosario Calderone of No. 133 Avenue A, was arranging a film showing the evolutions of Farman's aeroplane, and it was this film that caught fire. The operator's box was on a platform just inside the entrance of the hall.

The fire was seen by Mme. Rossi on the stage, and she shouted "Fire!" This caused the crowd to rush wildly for safety. Most of the frightened spectators dashed toward the street entrance, but a few went to the rear of the hall, where there were two signs marked "Exit" over doors on each side of the stage. There was a slight jam at the front entrance for a time, but all reached the street safely.

Those, however, who went to the rear, found an unexpected obstruction confronting them. The rear exits led to an iron platform that extended through a gate into the yard at the rear of No. 178 Thompson street. When the first to dart out the rear exits reached the gate, they say they found it closed and bound with wire.

Among the first to reach the gate were Mrs. Julia Fellini of No. 215 Thompson street, and her two children. John and Edna. Mrs Fellini tried to open the gate, but could not. She pushed against the gate, she said, but could not budge it. A man and a woman joined her and they also tried to open it. but the combined efforts of the three proved unsuccessful. The young man helped her two children over the fence. Then several men threw their weights against the gate, the wires broke, and they passed through into the yard and reached the street by way of the hallway of No. 178.

The firemen came in response to an alarm sent in by Patrolman Daniel Keenan of the
Mercer street station. The fire had consumed the operator's box on the ground floor and made its way through the floor into the rooms of the athletic club on the floor above. It was extinguished, with an estimated damage of $500.

From the 30-June-1911 Graham Guardian (Safford, Arizona). What the heck is an "air dome?" Based on text evidence, I would say a store, but the name is not capitalized.

While holding a moving picture show at the air dome Thursday evening, in some unaccountable manner the celluloid films caught fire, the flames leaped high into the air and at the same time making such a loud report that it caused a stampede in the audience for a time. People rushed madly in every direction. Women and children screamed, some fainted many climbed right on top of the store buildings by the aid of the piano. There was some anxiety for a time lest the store buildings on either side would catch on fire but a few buckets of water promptly extinguished the flames. C. C. Cole was badly burned on the hands and face, others were slightly burned. Ernest Tomlinson was hurt quite badly by falling. Many were severely frightened, and the moving picture machine destroyed.

Thank you to Ferdy on Films ( and The Self-Styled Siren ( for organizing this blogathon. I'm having fun and learning.

Please consider donating to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The newspaper articles come from Chronicling America (, a project of the Library of Congress.


ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! Joe Thompson,
This post consisted of a series of tragedies and most definitely, the beginning of the preserving of history on celluloid.

"Whether celluloid is explosive or not is a question regarding which there is some disagreement, but he remarks that accidents sometimes occur in consequence of the ignition of the vapor of ether or alcohol which has been employed in the production of celluloid. Utterances..."

I was wondering what cause the fires...I think that will do it!

"Here are a few more examples of theater fires. I take interest in these stories because I used to be emergency team floor warden at work. Notice the common practice of someone yelling "Fire" and everyone else panicking. Both bad ideas if you ever find yourself in a fire."

Wow...I noticed that too...I think that is against the law to yell fire in a theatre today? If I'am not mistaken?!?

Wow...So many fires, So many injuries too...during the birth of films strips.(Nitrate-based celluloid.)
Thanks, for sharing this very informative series.

Take care!
DeeDee ;D

Joe Thompson said...

It is sad to read about all the tragedies. When people talk about the good old days, don't believe them. Your life expectancy would have been a good bit shorter. Ether was determined to be the prime cause of the Paris Charity Bazaar fire that killed more than 125 people. I don't think it's strictly against the law to yell "Fire" in a theater, as long as there is actually a fire. People who know about fire fighting have said it would be better to go talk to a staff member in the lobby or go find a fire alarm and pull it. Panic is what gets a lot of people hurt or killed.