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The Year Without A Summer

Categories: Abington, Abolitionists, Archives, Black History, Death, Documents, Quakerism, Warminster

Charles Kirk

Charles Kirk (1800-1890)

In 1816, the Northern Hemisphere experienced a summer so cold that lakes and waterways were frozen in parts of Pennsylvania in July and August and frost was reported as far south as Virginia. Crops were destroyed by frost at the peak of the growing season, leading to widespread food shortages. In Ireland, the famine was compounded by an outbreak of epidemic typhus, a lice-borne illness that is more prevalent in colder weather because lice can hide more easily within multiple layers of clothing. Scientists now believe the world was experiencing a volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, the largest eruption in 1,300 years. This disastrous year was called the Year Without A Summer.

The experience of one Bucks County resident serves as a microcosm of this global disaster. In 1879, Charles Kirk (1800-1890) of Warminster composed a series of autobiographical reflections, beginning with his childhood in Abington. One of the first stories he recounts is that of his family’s struggle during the Year Without A Summer. Frost struck throughout the summer months, and like so many other farmers they were left without a harvest. In October his family suffered an outbreak of typhus, which claimed the life of his mother Rebecca and his sister Ruth and afflicted all of the other children besides Charles. His father was already physically disabled due to prior injuries, so at the age of fifteen Charles was forced to assume a heavy burden for his family. He recalls:

The year 1816 was a very eventful year to our family for it was the coldest summer ever in the County, frost in every month. I remember well of seeing in the Sixth Month, of the leaves on the hickory trees dead and crisp by the effects of it. Crops very light indeed. Scarcely any corn came to maturity, enough for to be fit for seed. For several years before and after this time owing to the poverty of the farm we were nearly always out of hay before the grass was cut to turn out a pasture, and out of grain before the next crop came to maturity. These things used to nick me to the very quick, for I was so ashamed to be seen hauling hay in the spring of the year to feed our stock that I disliked to meet anyone for it seemed to manifest to my mind a want of industry and management, but I have lived to see that even this kind of schooling, hard as it was to bear, has had its good effects on my mind.

I now come to the most sorrowful period of my life. In the latter part of the summer of this year my dear Mother was taken sick with what was then called typhus fever, and after about nine days suffering her trials, hardships and her anxieties came to a close in this world and I fully believe she entered into a state of happiness in the next. But here I must pause, for I have no words to convey the feelings of my mind on that occasion, for although more than sixty-two years has passed since that event, still the remembrance of it is clear and strong, so much so that I scarcely refrain from shedding tears whilst writing these lines. There was ten children of us at the time, the youngest about five years of age.

The time of my Mother’s sickness was an anxious one to all the family for she was indeed the head of it in every sense of the word. The fever at that time was thought to be contagious so us children were not allowed to go in the room where she was, but there was a crack in the board partition in the garret stairway that I used to go and peer through to see her. These are the last sights I ever had of her in this life. One day during her illness when out in the field reflecting on the prospect of things the impression on my mind was that if she should die there would be no pleasure left for me in this world, but I had not then learned to look to a higher Power for peace and happiness, the great fountain and source of all good, the sure foundation to build upon in this life.

It was indeed a house of affliction. Sister Ruth took the fever and was dangerously ill for a long time so much so that we were called in more than once to see her die, but after a long and tedious time she recovered. Sister Elizabeth, a girl about twelve years old, sickened and died with it in the 18th of 10th Month, 1816. The rest of the children all took the fever, eight of them sick in bed at one time. I was the only one that escaped and I well remember feeling so thankful for the favor. The neighbors became alarmed, some were afraid to come amongst it but still there were some who rendered every assistance in their power. As I was the only one able to go, there was much that fell to my lot to do at that time. The doctors depended almost entirely on stimulants, wine and brandy was used in large quantities, and I had also to go round and to solicit persons to come and set up with the sick, and even this was a lesson of instruction to me and I have endeavored to profit by it. Never when any of the neighbors were sick not to be sent for but to go and see if I could be of any use.

Source: Charles Kirk’s Journal (handwritten copy), Bound Manuscript Collection, BM-B-243, Mercer Museum Library, Doylestown, PA.

Although the Kirk family continued to face financial difficulty in the years that followed, Charles eventually became a successful farmer. In about 1841 he purchased a 118-acre farm in Warminster Township, and the 1870 US Census values his combined real estate and personal estate at $18,500. He became a respected elder in the Society of Friends, and he participated in the Underground Railroad, sheltering a fugitive from Virginia named Sarah Lewis for more than a decade after slave hunters captured the rest of her family in Philadelphia. Although little trace of his farm remains, having been purchased by the US Navy as part of the Johnsville Naval Air Development Center in 1994, Kirk Road still bears his name. A house that was once part of Kirk’s farm is still standing, currently the home of Gilda’s Club Delaware Valley, a cancer support group. According to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, the structure dates to 1817, so it very well may have been the house where Charles Kirk composed his memoires.

Note: The portion of Charles Kirk’s diary excerpted above has been edited for readability. Punctuation has been added for clarity, capitalization has been normalized, and minor spelling errors and slips of the pen have been corrected.

The version of Kirk’s narrative found in the Mercer Museum Library’s manuscript is apparently a transcription of the original text. The book was first used as a record book for public vendues held in Newportville, Bristol Township, in 1841. It was repurposed by a later owner to record genealogical information about the Kirk family and to transcribe the journal of Charles Kirk. This later section is composed in two unique hands, indicating that one person began transcribing Kirk’s journal and a second person completed it. The section excerpted above includes the work of both authors.

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The Little Witch of the Woods

Categories: Archives, Buckingham, Lahaska, Quakerism, Solebury, Tags: ,

Betts Homestead

The Betts Homestead in Solebury

While cataloging bound manuscripts for the Bucks County Historical Society I came across this story in a scrapbook from the Lahaska area dating to the 1890s. It contained the following newspaper clipping, in which Martha Kenderdine “Mattie” Reeder recounts stories from her grandmother’s childhood:

Reminiscences of “When Grandma Was Young.”

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A Paper Read Before the Farmers’ Institute at Lansdale by Miss Mattie Reeder, of New Hope, on Wednesday, March 10th, 1897.

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It was a dreary day in early November. The scudding clouds had fought a triumphant battle with the wintry sunshine. Now the first snow was falling. The old, stone farm house, safe sheltered from the north winds by the surrounding hills and forest, was never known to close its door upon the tired traveler. To-night there seemed an extra bustle within its walls. A little stranger had that day arrived. “The baby is a girl,” the radiant nurse announces. “Another little girl, and I have so many little girls,” sighed the pale mother. And this was grandma’s welcome to the world. It was not a very warm one and at first grandma debated long the question, should she stay? Perhaps it was the beauty of the dancing flames in the great fireplace, or the tender mother love which cherished her, or maybe the awkward caresses of her blue-eyed brother that at length determined her. So the sickly baby grew into a rosy, toddling girl, whose life was as joyous and free as the song birds about her. And it is fragments from this girl[‘s] life of long ago that I will try to tell.

It was a large family that dwelt in the spacious farm house. The first-born, a son, was looked upon with awe by all the youngsters. He was treated with almost the respect they showed to father. Then came a list of daughters who went by the name of “the girls.” And lastly grandma and her darling scapegrace* brother, who were known until both married as “the children.” This brother and sister, “the children,” the love that bound them so closely together, makes it impossible to tell the story of one life without also telling that of the other.

Grandma’s one great trial of her childhood’s days was that she could not be a prim and quiet little maid like her sisters. She would run and romp, climb the tallest trees and whistle. Her little feet from spring to fall were innocent of shoes and stockings, except on First-days when it was her turn to go to meeting. Then, in a household of so many daughters there could not be a different dress and bonnet for each one. One costume did for many. So poor little grandma would find herself in a gown, either too long or too short and with shoes that clumped or else cruelly pinched her feet. But not withstanding this her day to go to meeting was always longed for and when over remembered fondly.

It was ever wonderment to her grandchildren that grandma showed an unconquerable aversion to a yellow cat. One day the secret transpired. At the farm house, it appears, pet cats and kittens were tabooed. But one yellow kitten proved so engaging that the little fluffy thing crept right into the hearts of the children. When their secret was discovered the mandate was issued, the kitten must die and they must kill it. It did seem cruel but to disobey father or mother was never thought of. Grandmother and her brother held a sorrowful consultation. At last he had a brilliant inspiration. The kitten should be Arnold, the traitor, and be hung. Arnold deserved the fate and they, he argued, (not withstanding their friendly up bringing) would be doing a worthy act. Grandma gave a dubious sigh of assent and followed her leader. Arnold was taken to the woods with a tow string fixed firmly around his neck. The limb was chosen, the deed all but done, when “you wicked children!” screamed a shrill voice behind them. Turning they saw flying toward them an old woman, whose gray hair flew out behind her. She had thrown her bundle of sticks aside and shook her crutch in a menacing manner as she swooped upon them. “The Witch of the Woods,” they gasped in terror and fled. This old woman had long been known to them by fame. She lived alone in her wretched hut and how she existed none knew. But because she was old and poor and lonely she was called a witch and the name clung to her and helped make her shunned. She knew she was feared and her temper was sound, but she saved that kitten.

Sometime after this grandma chanced to be alone in the forest when she again encountered the witch, gathering her daily bundle of faggots. With scant ceremony the old woman bade the little girl help her carry wood. Afraid to obey, afraid to disobey, grandma stood. A second command, sharper than the first, made her hasten to assist. Arrived at the witch’s hut she found her reward in a seed cake. There were no black cats to be seen, not black bag to hide little girls in and no superfluous broom-sticks. It was only the home of a poor, lame, old woman, and when a little kindness was shown her she proved not ungrateful. Perhaps it was pity or maybe it was the seed cake that made grandma from that time a visitor to the old Witch of the Woods.

It was considered a misfortune by the children (and it was a misfortune) that they had no grandma. Other little people had and boasted to them and put on superior airs. Their pride was touched. Grandma pondered long on this perplexing problem; then it was solved. We would adopt a grandma, and no less a person was selected than the Witch of the Woods. This solution was rejected by her brother. He even teased her, calling her “The Little Witch of the Woods,” but she was not to be deterred.

One of the older sisters had been sent to boarding school. With the knowledge there acquired she was expected to teach the children and she did so with credit. A summer school was held in a room over the wagon house and to her little people come from far and near. In the winter the big boys come and then it was an unwritten law that no girl should attend. Grandma was quick at her studies and was loath to leave. She timidly petitioned to be allowed to attend the winter session. But her father’s stern “What does thee want among a parcel of big boys” effectually silenced her. Nevertheless, her brother went and grandma secretly pored over his books and kept pace with him.

One time when the father and mother attended yearly meeting her brother was taken with them. It was their first separation, and grandma felt it keenly. But the joy of the return! She learned then she had not been forgotten. With his scanty, hard-earned pennies her brother had bought her a china mug. And enclosed by a wreath of flowers were the words “For My Favorite.” As long as she lived this mug had a place among grandma’s greatest treasures. But all this time grandma was growing. She was no longer “The Little Witch of the Woods.” She was learning the art of spinning, of churning golden butter, and the mystery of cooking was no mystery to her. In all household affairs the careful mother trained her daughter. And she was such an old, old fashioned mother that she taught her to look forward to the time when she should be married, and helped form her so that she would perform the duties of a wife nobly and well. There was already a goodly store of linen, spun by grandma’s girlish fingers and laid carefully away for her “outset.” And as she sat by her wheel, spinning, spinning, many must have been the gorgeous day dreams of the coming of the prince. All the older girls were married, and her father jokingly had told her she must not ask for her outset for those three years. Then grandma was only dreaming, but at the end of those three years her father was seriously reminded of his joke.

Grandma’s brother had grown into a tall young man. He was something of a dandy and went to see the girls. Often his gay companions came to the old farm house. Neither their coming or their going troubled grandma.

She had not yet asked herself the question, “Am I a child or woman?” One day seeing her brother’s team drive in the door-yard, she left her work and ran to meet him. Too late, a strange young man, she saw, was with him. [And she] stood spell-bound for she looked upon her prince. Then she realized in one brief instant that her home-spun dress was old and faded. That her curly hair was dreadfully tumbled and oh, what should she do! She had on neither shoes nor stockings. At this crisis, without a word and with cheeks of crimson grandma turned and fled. But the prince had only seen her face.

This I think proves quite plainly nature had been very kind to grandma, since it took so little to make her charming. Still, great was the disgust of her brother. “What had made her behave so simple?” Alas! she did not know. “What would his friend think of the sister he had been so highly praising?” Grandma was silent, but she only wished she knew.

Meanwhile the father and the mother saw their daughter bud into a woman and they gave her the outfit suitable for a young woman of her day. To transform this merry girl into a stately lady they bought her one silk gown, a cotton print, a pair of long silk mit[t]s, a shawl and bonnet. And grandma over this modest wardrobe had just as many raptures as girls of to-day.

When she stood arrayed in her gown of silvery gray her thoughts wandered to the prince and she could not help sighing, “Oh! If he could only see me now.” But the prince did not forget her. He began to come quite often to see her brother. At least the brother thought so, and took upon himself all the entertainment, while the poor prince suffered torments. Demure grandma saw it all, but would not help him. But at last grandpa (Oh! the prince) by means of schemes the darkest and efforts mighty succeeded in escaping from this now tiresome brother. But when this poor deluded brother saw his friend walking with his sister he was blind no longer.

Then came grandma’s courting days. But of the long rides, the walks, the talks grandma and grandpa had together grandma would never tell me. She was growing old, she said, and it was all so long ago she could not remember. And that was the first and only time that I could not quite believe her.

*Scapegrace: a mischievous or wayward person; a rascal.

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The grandmother in question is Letitia Blackfan Betts. Her father Stephen Betts settled in Solebury in the late 1700s, and the Betts homestead remained in their family for more than a century. Letitia was born on November 11th, 1801, and grew up on her family’s farm on Stoney Hill Road. Her younger brother John, with whom she was so close, was born in 1804. Letitia married her suitor Joseph Eastburn Reeder at Buckingham Friends Meeting on April 11th, 1824. The farmhouse, which still stands today, was located between Stoney Hill and Aquetong Road.

Letitia's brother William Betts owned the farm in 1850

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Delivering Nitrate to the Library of Congress

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Categories: Archives, Film, Film Preservation

PrincessLadybug_1

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Above: Princess Ladybug (1930) – Now in vaults of the Library of Congress

From the dawn of the film era in 1889 until 1951, the 35mm films projected in movie theaters were printed on highly flammable nitrate film stock. In addition to being hazardous nitrate decomposes, producing caustic gas that builds up between the layers of film. It also shrinks, eventually causing the emulsion to separate from the base, and in the later stages becomes sticky until the layers of meld into one black disc, ultimately crumbling into a rust-colored flammable powder. If stored improperly, nitrate film can even spontaneously combust. All of these properties pose significant problems to the archivists tasked with preserving film.

While preserving nitrate is difficult, it is also extremely important. It has been estimated that 90% of films from the Silent Era and half of all sound films made before before 1952 are lost forever.

Film preservationists have determined that the best way to store nitrate is to place it in a climate-controlled vault that keeps the film cool, dry, and well ventilated. Of course the storage area must also be built with fire safety as a high priority. As a result, there are few facilities that can safely deal with nitrate. The British Film Institute converted a nuclear bunker to store their nitrate. In the US, there are a few facilities. UCLA has a vault in Santa Clarita, and the MoMA has a facility in Hamlin, PA. One of the largest and best run nitrate facilities in the world is run by the Library of Congress (LOC) in Culpeper, VA, in a former Federal Reserve bunker.

I’m friends with a local film preservationist who has donated hundreds of films to the LOC over the last few decades, ranging from the hallowed work of Edison and George Méliès to campy sci-fi and westerns. He has also periodically lent out films for restoration projects, including Disney’s restoration of Fantasia. In 2009 I helped him coordinate the donation of about 200 nitrate items to the LOC, which constituted the vast majority of his remaining nitrate collection. For the next few years I gently encouraged him to give the LOC his few remaining prints, but he wanted to hold onto them.

Bare Knees (1928) - A flappers era comedy donated to the Library of Congress in 2009.

Bare Knees (1928) – A flappers era comedy donated to the Library of Congress in 2009.

I finally found my chance this spring. He read in the Vitaphone Project newsletter that the soundtrack to his print of Princess Ladybug (1930) had been found in Australia. The film was from the early sound era, before soundtracks were printed on the film itself. Instead, the sound was recorded on shellac records that were played in sync with the film using a Vitaphone player. As a result, you need both the records and the film print in order to reproduce the movie in its entirety. Because the image and the sound are so easily separated, many of the Vitaphone movies that still exist survive only partially. A film print may be sitting safely in an archive but the sound has been lost, or vice versa.

The discovery of Princess Ladybug’s soundtrack was the impetus he needed to make another donation. He wanted to send Princess Ladybug to the LOC to have it reunified with its soundtrack for the first time in over 80 years, and was willing to add a number of other prints as well. I put him in touch with the Nitrate Vault Manager, and volunteered to drive the films down to Virginia for him.

Below are the pictures of my trip:

Packed to the gills with nitrocellulose. Highlights include Charlie Chaplin's Work (1915), a mint fox newsreel showing Mussolini being hanged, the color segment from the first film to feature the three-strip Technicolor, Princess Ladybug (1930), a Vitaphone short whose audio was recently discovered, shot in the extremely rare Photocolor process, and the only existing print of Popeye Meets Sinbad, also Technicolor.

Packed to the gills with nitrocellulose. Highlights include Charlie Chaplin’s Work (1915), a mint fox newsreel showing Mussolini being hanged, the color segment from the first film to feature the three-strip Technicolor, Princess Ladybug (1930), a Vitaphone short whose audio was recently discovered, shot in the extremely rare Photocolor process, and the only existing print of Popeye Meets Sinbad, also Technicolor.

Formerly used as a Federal Reserve building, they got rid of the machine gun nest and traded the gold for silver halides. George the Nitrate Vault Manager wheels the film in through the front door.

Formerly used as a Federal Reserve building, they got rid of the machine gun nest and traded the gold for silver halides. George the Nitrate Vault Manager wheels the film in through the front door.

Authorized personnel only.

Authorized personnel… but a little ragged after the 5 hour drive.

This is where nitrate is brought for preliminary examination. It's also where researchers are allowed to examine nitrate prints. The vacuum cleaner (back center) is explosion proof. The blue barrel is where they dump nitrate that is beyond repair. They pour water over it and reseal the container. He cracked the lid to show me... nasty chemical slurry.

The lab just outside the nitrate vault. The reel being examined is a from Cinerama film. The Cinerama process created a super wide image by projecting three side-by-side images at once.

The lab just outside the nitrate vault. The reel being examined is a from Cinerama film. The Cinerama process created a super wide image by projecting three side-by-side images at once.

This is where nitrate is brought for preliminary examination. It’s also where researchers are allowed to examine nitrate prints. The vacuum cleaner (back center) is explosion proof. The blue barrel is where they dump nitrate that is beyond repair. They pour water over it and reseal the container. He cracked the lid to show me… nasty chemical slurry.

Inside the vault!

Inside the vault!

The major studio's prints are stored in banks of consecutive storage rooms.

The major studio’s prints are stored in banks of consecutive storage rooms.

George explains how sheets of water pour down to contain a fire.

George explains how sheets of water pour down to contain a fire.

The shelving is designed so that if one reel ignites the fire is contained on that shelf, and the only other reel in danger is the single other reel on that shelf. The film cans are waterproof but air permeable, allowing the nitrate to off-gas. The room is ventilated so that the atmosphere in each room is completely replaced every half hour or so. It's also cold. The nitrate is stored at 35 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 55 degree acclimatization room. Any time a reel enters or leaves the vault, it's brought to the acclimatization room for one day. By changing the temperature in stages, they avoid letting condensation form on the film.

The shelving is designed so that if one reel ignites the fire is contained on that shelf, and the only other reel in danger is the single other reel on that shelf. The film cans are waterproof but air permeable, allowing the nitrate to off-gas. The room is ventilated so that the atmosphere in each room is completely replaced every half hour or so. It’s also cold. The nitrate is stored at 35 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 55 degree acclimatization room. Any time a reel enters or leaves the vault, it’s brought to the acclimatization room for one day. By changing the temperature in stages, they avoid letting condensation form on the film.

Waterlines hang above the shelves, and the lights are completely sealed to prevent an electric shock from igniting the film.

Waterlines hang above the shelves, and the lights are completely sealed to prevent an electric shock from igniting the film.

Devil's Playground taunts us with the potential hell fire of a nitrate fire.

Devil’s Playground taunts us with the potential hellfire of a nitrate eruption.

Unknown Circa 1904 Romance

Unknown Circa 1904 Romance

"Here's the one that started it all!" -- The original camera negative for The Great Train Robbery (1903).

“Here’s the one that started it all!” — The original camera negative for The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Copyright submission for a film reproduction of an 1899 boxing match.

Copyright submission for a film reproduction of an 1899 boxing match.

September 9th, 1899.

September 9th, 1899.

Copyright law didn't specify rules for moving images, so filmmakers sent in four frames from each scene to copyright them as still images.

Copyright law didn’t specify rules for moving images, so filmmakers sent in four frames from each scene to copyright them as still images.

They made it to the 25th round. Looking pretty good for 114 years old.

They made it to the 25th round. Looking pretty good for 114 years old.

A nitrocellulose film base was used to a lesser extent for still photography. The nitrate negatives for a lot of the iconic photographs from the Great Depression are stored in this room.

A nitrocellulose film base was used to a lesser extent for still photography. The nitrate negatives for a lot of the iconic photographs from the Great Depression are stored in this room.

"This one almost killed me!" - When George picked up this can, the decomposing nitrate was off-gassing so badly that he had to open all the windows of his car because the fumes were so bad.

“This one almost killed me!” – When George picked up this can, the decomposing nitrate was off-gassing so badly that he had to open all the windows of his car because the fumes were so noxious.

Best office decorations ever.

Best office decorations ever.

They have the best toys.

They have the best toys.

Edison's Home Kinetoscope (1912), the first home projection system. The lamp housing has been removed to show the carbon arc. Each 22mm reel contained three sets of exposures. It was equipped with two lenses and three side-by-side apertures. You would crank the reel forward, backward, and forward again to play through all the images.

Edison’s Home Kinetoscope (1912), the first home projection system. The lamp housing has been removed to show the carbon arc. Each 22mm reel contained three sets of exposures. It was equipped with two lenses and three side-by-side apertures. You would crank the reel forward, backward, and forward again to play through all the images.

A 9.5mm Pathescope projector. The perforations are between each frame instead of running along the side.

A 9.5mm Pathescope projector. The perforations are between each frame instead of running along the side.

A newsreel camera with a telephoto lens.

A newsreel camera with a telephoto lens.

The tall unit is an amplifier for Vitaphone, the first commercially viable sound process for film. Look at the size of those tubes!

The tall unit is an amplifier for Vitaphone, the first commercially viable sound process for film. Look at the size of those tubes!

Their projection booth was built by Cardinal Sound & Motion Picture Systems to safely project nitrate film. Safety features include enclosed magazines and fire rollers designed to snuff out a flame before it enters the magazines. Unfortunately, the still don't have any projectionists trained to run nitrate.

Their projection booth was built by Cardinal Sound & Motion Picture Systems, Inc. to safely project nitrate film. Safety features include enclosed magazines and fire rollers designed to snuff out a flame before it enters the magazines. Unfortunately, the still don’t have any projectionists trained to run nitrate.

A fire activated linkage that closes off the booth in case of a fire. The linkage is made of a metal with a low melting point, so if a fire breaks out it will melt and the chain will drop, lowering a shield between the booth and the theater. Probably one of the only one of these still functioning in the world.

A fire activated linkage that closes off the booth in case of a fire. The linkage is made of a metal with a low melting point, so if a fire breaks out it will melt and the chain will drop, lowering a shield between the booth and the theater. Probably one of the only one of these still functioning in the world.

To give you an idea of how dangerous nitrate is, here’s a video of a single reel (about 20 minutes worth) going up in flames. You can jump to 3:45 to go straight to the fireworks:

Of course, this is film that has been purposefully set of fire. Nitrate was the standard for film presentation for more than half a century, and while projectionists had to be far more careful, accidental fires weren’t that common.

To see more beautiful nitrate, check out the Nitrate Interest Group on Flickr.