The dangers of celluloid

Farmer’s Death from Burns

On Wednesday, an inquest was held at Pimlico, Clitheroe, in reference to the death of a retired farmer named James Walne, aged seventy-three years, who died the previous day from the effects of burns received a week ago. Walne got out of bed soon after midnight to see what the time was. He struck a match at the bedside, and was lighting the candle when a spark dropped on the celluloid case of his watch. The case immediately blazed up, setting fire to the bed and to the man’s clothing. He was badly burned about the head and neck and arms.

A verdict of “accidental death” was returned.
— Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Friday, 26 February, 1909. Supplement, Page 5, Column 2.

James, a member of my ONS, was one of several people who perished or were injured by burns from celluloid items in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his case the celluloid that flared up when ignited was his watch case, but for others it was a hair piece, jewellery, collar or a toy doll. At risk too, were those working in the factories that created these things.

So what is celluloid? Essentially, an early plastic that can be coloured and moulded. The name ‘celluloid’ was registered in 1870 but its origins go back approximately 15 years earlier under the names Parkesine and Xylonite. Made from nitrocellulose (aka guncotton) and camphor, it is particularly well remembered as the flammable film used for early movies, but it is less well remembered perhaps as a substitute for ivory (sometimes known as ‘French Ivory’) or tortoiseshell, as well as a cheap and light material for making lots of other things, from decorative clocks to plectrums.

Plastics have moved on in the last century and most that we use now are nowhere near as flammable. However, celluloid is still used today for particular products – notably accordions. Vintage celluloid items are getting rarer and are now prized by collectors.

A few years prior to James’ death, the issue of highly inflammable – and even explosive – celluloid was raised in parliament by Lord Saltoun. (Celluoid – HL Deb 13 May 1902 vol 108 cc8-14).

The guncotton element, he said, had caused many serious burning accidents, including one to a member of his own family. The lady in question had been sitting four feet from her drawing room fire when a comb ignited and her ‘head was enveloped in flames’. He further noted Professor Ogston’s recent article in the Lancet on the same subject, which contained a warning about the dangers of celluloid collars for children and adults which were ‘fearfully inflammable’. Unfortunately, should something around your neck catch fire, it was extremely difficult to remove it before serious injury was inflicted.

At a time when smoking was very commonplace, and open fires and candles the norm, the potential dangers were obvious - spare a thought too for the canine victims: Mademoiselle Zelle’s little dog reputedly died when her collar was ignited by her mistress’ cigarette in Paris. ‘Pouf! It was all over’.