when photography was deadly

Kodak Safety Film

Toronto. Have you ever wondered why the historic old movie films were so hard to find? And why archives like the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) preface really old films as “remastered” from pieces found at various other archives?

At the beginning of the last century, the base for film material – movie and still – was the dangerous Nitrate film. It was attractive for its high optical quality and clarity. Unfortunately, this film proved highly unstable in archives and tended to ignite by spontaneous combustion. Fortunately it gave off a strong acetic acid (vinegar) smell as it disintegrated before bursting into flames and burning with highly toxic fumes.

Mid last century a shift was made to so called safety or Cellulose acetate film which didn’t suddenly burst into flames. Since old films were shot on Nitrate film, it was less costly to abandon them rather than remaster them on safety stock. Some WW2 surplus film was Nitrate too and would slowly disintegrate and give off a strong odour of vinegar warning any would be photographer.

During the pursuit of film history, my friend George Dunbar came across this article in the August 1929 issue of Science and Invention. The article recounts a disaster at a Cleveland Hospital in May of 1929 where x-ray film caused a fire with toxic fumes killing members of both the patient body and staff.

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