My Life with Nitrate

I have worked with Nitrocellulose film my entire working career at George Eastman House. I began as a young 22-year-old, just out of school. I have seen nitrate film projected, carried it, wound through it, cared for it, and been mesmerized by it.

It was 1974 when Alan Bobey, my direct supervisor at the time, gave me a tour of the Strong Archive. This was the name of our nitrate vaults at the time, located on the George Eastman House property, just north and east of where the main entrance is today. The vaults were built in 1950 as the first private archival nitrate vault built specifically for that purpose in the United States. The Strongs were a preeminent Rochester family, as well as friends and advisers of George Eastman, and the vaults were named in their honor when they funded construction of the vault building.

[Photo: James Card, the Eastman House’s first curator of motion pictures at the Strong Archive]

I also learned where I stood in the department at that time because Alan told me to tie a rag on the door of the vault I was in. It seemed a strange request, and when I asked what the rag signified he smiled and told me that if the fumes over-powered me and I became unconscious or died, they wouldn’t waste time checking each vault. This was, of course, before air exchange became a requirement for nitrate vaults. This was state of the art in 1950.

[Photo: James Card, the Eastman House’s first curator of motion pictures at the Strong Archive]

I later had much more pleasant interactions with nitrate. George Pratt, our Film Curator at the time, taught me how to identify certain facts and history about individual titles on this stock. I learned what to look for, how to treat it, and consequently how it was frequently mistreated. As I became the department film technician and later the vault manger, I learned to respect and love this material that was the carrier for the dreams and the fantasy of the movies. I still look forward to every time I handle nitrate and the new secrets it holds.

Ed Stratmann
Associate Curator, Moving Image Collection
George Eastman House