SPECIALIST STILL PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVING
Cellulose nitrate was the plastic commonly used for film-base photographic materials (stills, movie and X-ray films) manufactured up to the early 1950s. It contains a high proportion of nitro-cellulose, otherwise known as celluloid. More modern film is acetate or polyester-based, which is less hazardous.
Three Stages of Nitrate Film Decay
Stage 1: Orange film discoloration and fading images
Stage 2: The film becomes smelly, sticky, and appears bubbly or foamy
Stage 3: The film crumbles into a bad-smelling brownish powder
How to Identify Nitrate Film Decay
- Labels: Check to see if the word ‘Nitrate’ is embossed or printed on the edge of the film. Some nitrate films have been copied onto less-flammable safety film, which might have the words ‘Nitrate’ and ‘Safety’ printed on the film.
- Deterioration: If film is in any of the three stages of decay we noted above, assume it’s nitrate. But if the film is wrinkled or smells like vinegar, it’s most likely safety film.
- Assume that any film dated before 1920 is nitrate film.
- Look for notches on the edge of any Kodak film dated from 1921 to 1940. Hold the film with the notches in the upper right corner. If the first notch from the right is shaped like a ‘V,’ you’re holding nitrate film. If the first notch looks like a ‘U,’ it’s most likely safety film.
- For non-Kodak film from 1921 to 1940, all film from 1940 to 1950, and any film that can’t be dated – look for the signs of deterioration we mentioned above.
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