Our Burning Love for Nitrate Film

24, August 2017

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection Project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives.

The end of August marks the halfway point for our Picturing 1930s St. Louis project. For almost a full year now we’ve been going through all the remaining negatives created by the Sievers Studio during the 1930s. We’ve found lots of great images, learned some interesting facts about the photographers who created them, and gotten a glimpse of what St. Louis was like during the early part of that decade. We’ve also achieved an important project goal: We’ve identified and cataloged all of the nitrate film.

Nitrate film, a flexible, transparent base for photographic negatives made of cellulose nitrate, was first sold in August 1889 by the Kodak Company. Prior to that, negatives were supported on sheets of glass. As you can imagine, photographers generally did not love hauling around heavy stacks of glass plates all day, creating their images, and then trying not to break the negatives while making prints. Nitrate film allowed photographers to create negatives that were easier to handle, far less delicate, and far less bulky.

Black-and-white photo of dedication of subdivision at Halls Ferry and Chambers roadsDedication of Castle Point subdivision at Halls Ferry and Chambers roads, 1931. (Just imagine hauling a stack of glass-plate negatives out here!) Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri History Museum.

Sounds like a good deal, right? So why does nitrate film tend to make photo and media archivists shudder? Well, it’s highly flammable, and after it’s on fire, you can’t put it out by any means—it even burns under water. Oh, and it sometimes spontaneously combusts. And as it deteriorates it can release hazardous gasses. But other than those minor details, I really like it personally!

All of the hundreds of images we’ve digitized in the Sievers Studio Collection are on nitrate film. It has a lovely, rich, warm tone that’s full of wonderful detail. After working with many types of negatives over the years, I’ve actually found nitrate to be much easier to care for than the cellulose acetate–based film that replaced it from the 1920s through the 1950s. Everything deteriorates over time, but if nitrate film is kept in a stable, cool environment with low humidity, it can be used and preserved for generations.

Side-by-side comparison of a nitrate negative in good condition and a deteriorated nitrate negativeThe nitrate negative on the left is in good condition. The badly deteriorated one on the right shows what can happen when nitrate film isn't stored properly.

Nitrate film gets a bad rap because of the whole unquenchable-fire thing, but if you store it properly and institute a strict no-open-flame-around-the-film policy, it’s unlikely you’ll have any problems with it. Cases of spontaneous combustion, though extremely frightening, are also extremely rare. The only nitrate film that ever spontaneously burst into flames was badly deteriorated motion picture film stored in  warm conditions with poor ventilation over a long period of time.

Thanks to donor Al Sievers’s good stewardship of his family legacy, combined with the appropriate storage conditions at the Missouri History Museum's Library and Research Center, none of the nitrate film in the Sievers Studio Collection has deteriorated to the point of being unusable. So in case I haven’t emphasized it enough, good storage is key! If you have any negatives or motion picture film in your personal collection that dates back to before 1951, you almost certainly have nitrate film as well. Be sure to read up on how to identify it and care for it to ensure your images will last for generations too.

—Amanda Claunch, Archivist, Photographs and Prints

Membership appeal