Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Do We Need to Preserve Films? A Brief History of Nitrate (Part III) -- February 19, 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 added a smattering of examples. In Part III, I decided to go out with a bang, using a single magazine article to illustrate a memorable event. From Insurance Engineering, Volume XVIII, Number 4, October, 1909. Click on the images to see larger versions.

Moving-Picture Film Exchanges.


ONE difference between underwriters and municipal authorities is that the former are constantly studying fire causes and fire waste and are endeavoring to assist property owners in preventing serious fires, while the latter apparently wait for something to happen before taking action of a remedial or preventive nature.

Inspector Torbohm's Warning.—Early in the year Edwin O. Torbohm, Inspector for the Home Insurance Co., of New York, called attention, in an article printed in Insurance Engineering for February, to the dangerous quantities of celluloid represented by the large stocks of moving picture films carried by film exchanges. Some cities limit the amount of celluloid (when called by that name) that may be stored in any premises without a permit, but no restriction appears to have been put on the quantity of moving picture film that can be kept on hand in film exchanges.
Fire In Omaha.—Inspector Torbohm's warning was timely. Underwriters and the authorities in Omaha, Neb., had just been reminded of the highly inflammable nature of moving picture film by a fire on January 7, in the Karbach Block. The Omaha authorities co-operated with the underwriters in restricting the handling of moving picture films in the business district, but apparently the Karbach Block fire did not impress other cities.

There was no inspection of any kind in Omaha before the Karbach Block fire nor was a license required for the sale of moving picture films.

Large Stocks Of "plays."—An inquiry made by Insurance Engineering to ascertain the maximum and minimum quantities of moving picture film carried by film exchanges showed that as high as 800,000 feet of film (about 4,000 lbs. of celluloid) was carried by one film exchange in a room lighted by electricity.

Pittsburg Film Exchange Fire.—At about 11:20 o'clock on Monday morning, September 27, a fire occurred in the film storage vault in the occupancy of the Columbia Film Company in the fourth story of the Ferguson Building, 309 Third avenue, Pittsburg. The fire was quickly followed by an explosion that wrecked the building and injured more than a score of persons.

The first reports on the fire, judging from the accompanying views of the Ferguson Building, taken after the explosion, did not exaggerate the facts. Persons in various parts of the building were knocked down where they stood by the force of the explosion, and others in the street also felt the shock. The nature of the injuries sustained is indicated in the accompanying list of casualties.

An investigation of the cause of the fire-explosion has been undertaken by the Technological Branch of the United States Geological Survey at the Arsenal Station, Pittsburg, in co-operation with Fire Marshal W. D. McGill and Inspector W. H. Coster of the Municipal Explosives Board. Testimony given at a preliminary hearing conducted by Fire Marshal McGill seemed to show that the fire was caused by a spark from an electric switch or a broken bulb of an incandescent lamp inside of the vault. If the fire was due to either of these causes, the films in the vault could not have been in tight metallic cases.

Fire Hazard Of "Exchange Day." — The fire-explosion occurred at the most favorable time for disastrous results. Monday is "exchange day," and at the time of the fire there was sure to be a good many persons in an office building. Regarding the hazard of exchange day, Inspector Torbohm said:

"The forenoon represents probably the most dangerous period as respecting the fire hazard. During the morning hours daily there is a constant stream of messengers from the various show houses delivering and receiving films. For the most part they are young men of eighteen or twenty years of age, of a readily recognizable type, and with greatly exaggerated notions of their own peculiar ability and importance. Practically all of them smoke cigarettes and smoke most of the time while they are in the exchange. Nominally they are supposed to remain outside of the counter. As a matter of fact, most of them do, but some wander freely among the examiners and repairers, smoking their cigarettes quite unmindful of the quantities of reeled and unreeled film, also scrap film, on the tables and on the floors. It is the general practice among exchanges to sweep up scrap celluloid film along with paper and rubbish, and deposit the same in wooden bins for removal, sometimes daily, sometimes less frequently. In one instance this refuse was stored regularly in the public hallway leading to the film exchange."

Who are the interested parties? Are cities interested in protecting valuable business property and the lives of citizens from explosions of highly combustible materials handled in ways that show an utter disregard of the danger? Should the tenants of office buildings have their lives put in jeopardy by the presence of any one dealing in quantities of an explosive material that would probably be prohibited by ordinance in some cities if called by its right name?

The value of moving picture films (the average price for a new "play" is about $115) would seem to be sufficient reason why exchanges should want to do everything in their power to prevent fire.

In addition to the interest of the public and the interest of the exchanges is the larger interest, from a commercial point of view, of the companies controlling the patents on moving-picture machines and the companies that produce the plays. The moving picture play, as a popular form of public amusement, has had a wonderful growth. A great deal has been heard through the medium of newspaper articles about the safeguards promoted by the large commercial interests in the moving-picture business, but if the conditions that caused the Pittsburg disaster are any criterion, apparently there is considerable room for improvement in the present method of handling and storing moving-picture films.

Fine distinctions between the different forms of so-called celluloid products should be prohibited by law. Any substance with a nitro-cellulose base should be regarded with suspicion. In the manufacture of celluloid goods and imitations of them small, well ventilated rooms are employed for the more hazardous processes. The reason for this precaution is not that the processes themselves are hazardous but that the materials used and produced are highly combustible.

(Editorial, The Pittsburg Dispatch.)

A curious demonstration of the way in which new inventions bring new perils is afforded by the explosion of cinematograph films in the office of an exchange of those new commodities at the Ferguson Building. It was well known that these films are highly inflammable, but it is now learned by dear experience that they can produce an explosion powerful enough to wreck a modern office building and to inflict injuries on some three score people—though by good fortune no fatal injuries are reported.

Plainly a new article of trade which possesses such possibilities of explosion and fire calls for restrictions as to handling and storage. The theory that an electric spark was the start of the trouble on this occasion seems to emphasize the variety of slight and unforeseen causes that may cause disaster in crowded localities. The Fire Marshall's stand that the film exchanges should not be allowed in office buildings seems a mild deduction from the premises disclosed by the shattering of a big building.

Investigation may well busy itself with the question whether their dangerous qualities do not require stricter regulation than that, both in wholesale lots and in the theatoriums and nickelodeons, which do not impress the observer as particularly fireproof.


Young woman stenographer, sixth floor, hair burned and face cut.
Young woman, second floor, cut and bruised by falling glass; rescued by fireman.
Young woman, sixth floor, burned about face and hands.
Young woman, burned about face and hands and overcome by fumes.
Young woman, third floor, cut by flying glass.
Young woman bookkeeper, Columbia Film Co., seriously burned about the hands and face, also suffered shock; condition serious. Removed to hospital.
Young woman, cut by flying glass.
Young woman, cut by flying glass while going down fire escape.
Young man, elevator operator, burned about face and hands and cut by glass while running car to rescue victims.
Tenant, sixth floor, cut on nose and forehead by glass.
Engineer of building, right hand cut.
Tenant, third floor, right wrist cut.
Tenant, fourth story, cut about face and arms.
Partner of last-named tenant, cut about face and arms by glass.
Lieutenant of engine company, both hands cut by flying glass.
Driver for local ice company, suffered from shock.
Driver for local ice company, suffered from shock.
Fireman of building, left shoulder lacerated, also burns about face and body.
Tenant of building across street, right wrist cut.
Young woman, fingers of both hands cut.
Young woman stenographer, right ear and forehead lacerated. Removed to hospital.
Young woman, fourth floor, bruised and cut about arms and body.
Young man, Columbia Film Co., cut by glass and singed.

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,
"In Part III, I decided to go out with a bang, using a single magazine article to illustrate a memorable event. From Insurance Engineering, Volume XVIII, Number 4, October, 1909.
I just read Part III, I must agree you, did end your series with a...bang!"

I noticed that all the people that were injured were mainly, young people and specifically, young women.

Interesting...I wasn't familiar with this incident.
But, I find it amazing what you can learn by exploring the blogosphere.
I plan to return shortly...and read Part I,and Part II.
Thanks, for sharing!
DeeDee ;-D

Mindless Meanderings Theory of the Day said...

Great Post Joe, I have gone through some basic reports of the Ferguson Building Fire, but the info . you posted contains a wealth of info.

Loved it and thanks,


Tinky said...

Again, great research, Joe!

Joe Thompson said...

Dee Dee: It is interesting about the preponderance of young people. Probably a lot of people who left the farm for the big city. And regretted it after the explosion. There's a lot of good posts out there in this blogathon. I hope you enjoy them all.

BG: I'm glad you enjoyed it. When I saw the name of the magazine, I was worried the article was going to be pretty dry, but this was a good one. Pittsburgh had another film exchange explode less than 10 years later. Did you notice they spelled it Pittsburg in the article? There was a movement to get the "h" about 100 years ago.

Tinky: I'm glad you liked it. I've been having a lot of fun. There's so much more material I could have used...

ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! Joe Thompson,
I hope that you don't mind me borrowing the cinematic magician Georges Méliès' link.
That is exactly, what I need as the NFPF blogathon ends.
DeeDee ;-D

Joe Thompson said...

Dee Dee: I'm happy for you to take any link you'd like. I feel bad about the Melies blog. He was writing about each movie in the set. He stopped to gather his strength for "Trip to the Moon" and has not returned. I worry about him.

Luke said...

Hi Joe,

A great set of posts. One of the interesting things about fires and panics is that you can use the data generated by the police reports to deduce information on audience composition that isn't available anywhere else for this period. It's something that's been done very well for English music hall in the 19th century. I've tried it for cinemas in London pre-1914, but (happily) the number of fires and panics were few, likewise the numbers involved. Bad for statistics, good for the audiences.


Joe Thompson said...

Luke: Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed them. That is an interesting idea, using police reports to give an insight into audience composition. I wonder if police in the US kept such thorough records. Thank you again for the information on the Hepworth and Paul films.

Justin Muschong said...

As both a film AND history nerd, I just wanted to thank you for all three of these posts. They really help to illuminate those dusty, near-forgotten corners of the past (where all the good stuff is kept).

Joe Thompson said...

Justin: Thanks for your comment. I'm a movie and history nerd, too. I agree that the best stuff is in the dusty corners.