All About Celluloids Flammability

Celluloid Matchsafe

Celluloids Flammability – The advent of John Wesley Hyatts Celluloid in the 1800s brought fancy jewelry, combs, cuffs and collars within reach of some people that had been unable to afford such luxurious articles including the Celluloid Matchsafe on the left. Celluloid was a plastic that was primarily a substitute for expensive natural products made of Elephant ivory.

One problem with Celluloid was never solved. This was its flammability. Most accounts of the dangers of Celluloid was its flammability and not the risk of explosion. This misconception is most likely linked to the story of exploding billiard balls made by the John Hyatts Albany Billiard Ball Company in the 1870s.

The Celluloid Manufacturing Company in Newark, NJ had 39 fires in 36 years, resulting in 9 deaths and 39 injuries. Trained chemist would have thought it unsafe to heat nitocellulose under pressure knowing it explosive character. Nitrocellulose is a highly flammable compound formed by nitrating cellulose (cotton fiber) through exposure to nitric acid. When used as a propellant or low-order explosive, it was originally known as guncotton.

A chemistry professor, Charles A Seeley employed by the American Hard Rubber Co. conducting a tour of the Celluloid Manufacturing Company warned Hyatt that if too much heat was applied to the substance it would destroy them. Also the adjoining building and the adjacent buildings. In spite of that warning Celluloid continued to be used, even for children’s toys and cigar holders.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s many factories in the United States experienced numerous fires. In spite of many safety precautions exercised, Celluloid fires were still very common events at the Celluloid Manufacturing Company and the factories that produced Celluloid fashion, vanity, advertising and Novelty items. Once started Celluloid fires were very hard to contain.

Over the many years Celluloid was produced there was an ongoing search for a substitute. Celluloid was susceptible to heat and softened considerably at temperatures of 100 degrees. In temperatures of over 100 degrees it decomposed, swelled and emitted dense fumes of camphor. In one story a woman sat down by the fire only to have the Celluloid buttons on her dress burst into flames. In another story a gentleman accidently brushed his cigar against a Celluloid shirt cuff and ended up setting fire to an entire home. These stories were not true but were just enough to neutralize or slow down the rapidly growing fashion for Celluloid.

Celluloid Motion Picture Film
Celluloid Motion Picture Film

In the late 1800s Celluloid was named as a replacement for glass plate photography. Celluloid film became firmly established during the 1890s as the only satisfactory medium for moving pictures. When Celluloid film became an essential component of moving pictures in the early 1900s it brought into the theater a reputation for flammability. Flammable nitrate celluloid film remained the industry standard worldwide until the late 1940s.

Proper handling of Celluloid items are very important considering its extreme flammability. Keep Celluloid items in a well ventilated room. Do not store Celluloid in tightly closed containers and keep away from flames. It’s all about celluloids flammability.

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