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By Colin Harding on

Celluloid and Photography, part 1: Celluloid as a substitute for glass

In the first of a series of three posts, Colin Harding looks at the development of celluloid and how early photographers experimented with it.

From the early 1850s, photographers had been looking for a practicable alternative to glass as a support for light-sensitised emulsions. The weight and bulk of glass plates added greatly to the photographer’s burden, added to which, of course, was the constant danger of breakage. Any substitute would have to fulfil a number of criteria—it would have to be light, tough, flexible, unaffected by water and photographic chemicals and, of course, transparent. Finding a material that would provide all of these characteristics proved to be extremely difficult. The answer was eventually found in one of the most important synthetic materials developed in the nineteenth century: celluloid.

Celluloid had its origins in the work of an Englishman, Alexander Parkes. In 1855, Parkes was granted a British patent for a substance which he called Parkesine. This was produced using a mixture of oils and gums as a solvent for nitrocellulose. In 1864 Parkes set up a company to manufacture parkesine commercially, but this venture failed after just three years. In 1875, an associate of Parkes’, Daniel Spill, received a patent for another synthetic material based on nitrocellulose, which he called Xylonite. Spill formed a company to produce xylonite which, in 1877, became the British Xylonite Company. In contrast to Parkes’ business efforts, this company enjoyed a degree of success.

In America, brothers, John and Isaiah Hyatt discovered that camphor under heat and pressure acts as a nitrocellulose solvent. Isaiah called the new material celluloid and numerous patents were granted to the brothers covering the use of this material as artificial ivory. A range of products were made from celluloid such as dominoes and billiard balls. In 1872 they founded the Celluloid Manufacturing Company which was to become America’s largest manufacturer of plastics and synthetic materials.

As celluloid became better known, its qualities recognised and its importance realised as a significant substitute for numerous products and processes, so photographers became increasingly interested in its possibilities.

Among the first to experiment with celluloid for photographic purposes were two French photographers, David and Fortier, who worked at the problem independently. Throughout the early 1880s, they kept the Societe Francaise de Photographie regularly informed of their progress. In March, 1881, Fortier announced:

J’ai l’honneur de presenter a la Societe de Photographie l’emploi du celluloid en feuilles minces et transparentes pour remplacer les glaces dans la manipulations du cliche photographique. cette substance, employee maintenant en Amerique comme verre a vitre, est transparante, souple et malleable. (i)

At the next meeting of the Society, held on 1 April 1881, David was quick to point out that he too was actively involved in experimenting with celluloid:

M. David dit que depuis longtemps il cherch a appliquer le celluloid a la Photographie, dans le but de remplacer les glaces, si lourdes et si fragiles. (ii)

Events in France were viewed with great interest by the wider photographic community and reported on regularly by the specialist photographic journals. In June 1882, the British Journal of Photography informed its readers:

M David exhibited sheets of celluloid, which he hoped will ere long render service to travellers, and replace the heavy glass they are now obliged to carry about with them when travelling. The celluloid, he said, was sold in Paris in a liquid state, and at twelve francs per litre. A solution is obtained by dissolving celluloid in ether and alcohol, a little castor oil being added. A clean glass plate one inch larger than the size required is heated before the fire, and the solution of celluloid poured upon it in the same manner as collodion.

When this is set another coating is given, and then a third—in fact, as many can be given as desired. The bromide solution is then poured on, and when dry the film is taken from the glass support and laid upon a piece of cardboard of the proper size. The edges of the film are now folded under the cardboard; for, it may be remembered, that the film was made an inch larger than the size required. A number of these cardboards are got ready and are much less heavy than glass for travelling.

To develop: the cardboard is replaced by a piece of glass to which the film adheres during the manipulations. M David showed two or three very good negatives and proofs. The difficulty in manipulation, and, above all, the cost price of the film, which is more expensive than glass, will hinder its general use. (iii)

In Britain, too, photographers were experimenting with celluloid. One of these was Colonel J Waterhouse, Assistant Surveyor-General of India:

In 1881 the writer visited the works of the British Xylonite Company at Homerton, to the North of London, in the hope of being able to obtain this transparent films or sheets of this material which would be useful as a substitute for glass in collotype. Some samples were obtained for trial but were too yellow in colour and too uneven in surface to be of any use.

They were also too thick for dry-plate films. It was suggested to the manufacturers that a thin transparent film of a whiter colour, quite flat and free from buckle, would find a large application in photography; but whether from difficulties in the manufacture, or want of demand, nothing further seems to have been done in this direction in England. (iv)

Despite all their endeavours, neither David, Fortier or Waterhouse were to enjoy ultimate success. The problem faced by all early experimenters was that the material they had to work with was too thick and streaky for photographic use. Manufacturers could not be persuaded to prepare thin enough sheets since they argued that there was not a sufficiently profitable market to justify the design and production of special machinery. Consequently, early experimenters had no choice but to prepare their own, frequently imperfect, celluloid.

Although most of the pioneering work had been done in Europe, the breakthrough was to come as a result of the work of a pioneering American photographic manufacturer, John Carbutt. As Waterhouse was to later observe:

It has been reserved for our practical-minded Transatlantic cousins to be the first to show the way and to produce the flat transparent films which can be handled and treated in the same way as glass plates, but without their liability to fracture and their excessive weight and bulk. (v)

Carbutt was an Englishman, born in Sheffield in 1832, who had emigrated to America as a young man. After working as a professional photographer in Chicago he eventually became a manager at the American Photo-Relief Printing Company in Philadelphia. Here he was to obtain valuable practical experience of working with gelatin and photographic chemicals. Always alert to the possibilities of new technologies and products, in 1879 Carbutt founded the Keystone Dry Plate Works. He was probably the very first person in America to commercially manufacture gelatin dry plates for photography.

Carbutt soon recognised the potential usefulness of celluloid and contacted the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, run by the Hyatt brothers in nearby Newark, New Jersey. Throughout the 1870s the Hyatts had acquired hundreds of patents in their attempt to cover every conceivable use of celluloid and every area of development. Two of these were to be particularly relevant for photography—firstly, a method of producing thick, clear blocks of celluloid and, secondly, a slicing mechanism that could cut sheets of celluloid of uniform thickness as thin as one-hundredth of an inch.

Carbutt experimented with material from the Celluloid Manufacturing Company from about 1884, purchasing thin sheets and then coating them with his dry plate emulsion. At a meeting of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia on 21 November 1888, he told his audience:

The substance I have the honor to bring your notice tonight is thin sheet celluloid, manufactured by the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, of Newark N.J. It is some three or four years since I first examined this material, but the manufacturers had not then perfected the finish of it to render it available, and it is only during this year that it has been produced uniform in thickness and finish, and I am now using at my factory large quantities of sheet celluloid one-hundredth of an inch in thickness, coated with the same emulsion as used on glass, forming flexible negative films, the most complete and perfect substitute for glass I believe yet discovered on which to make negatives and positives. (vi)

Even before his announcement to the Franklin Institute, however, Carbutt had already put on to the market his ‘flexible celluloid film’. This was the first commercial photographic use of celluloid as a substitute for glass. On 3 November, Carbutt’s local photographic journal, The Philadelphia Photographer, had commented:

Few veterans are so progressive as John Carbutt, the original dry-plate maker of Wayne Junction, Philadelphia. Few of the readers of our magazine were more surprised than we were at seeing his advertisement in our last number of a substitute for glass. Mr Carbutt assures us that there is no doubt but that he is able to exclaim “Eureka!” We shall prove this by our own trials very shortly, and make full announcement. Mr Carbutt has recently introduced the Edison electric light into his factory, and his men are now working overtime with the light in their lamps. When will wonders cease! (vii)

Carbutt soon spread the news of his discovery. On 23 November 1888, The Photographic News reported:

From John Carbutt, of Wayne Junction, Philadelphia, we have received a package which contains celluloid films coated with gelatine emulsion, and which are developed as easily as coated glass plates. The celluloid film is quite as transparent and as free from defects as the the best glass, but the emulsioned surface is slightly roughened, and as it takes about one hundred of the coated films to make up the thickness of one inch, it is obvious that, as regards lightness and portability, the celluloid films will hold their own with paper.

Sheets of celluloid coated with emulsion are not exactly a novelty, as several years ago the use of this material was advocated by M. David and others; but owing to the imperfections of the material used their results were crude and unpromising compared with these now before us. Mr Carbutt’s success in putting his films upon the market has been mainly dependent on obtaining a supply of clear and glass-like celluloid, free from defects and uniformly thin; and in the second place, on roughing the surface so slightly and uniformly as to make the emulsion to adhere properly, and yet not to impair the transparency of the medium.

In celluloid we have a material which does not react in any way with moisture, and as it does not absorb moisture, it neither swells nor curls in the developing fluid. In fact, the use of these films offers no additional manipulation beyond what is required in the case of glass plates, and as soon as the negative is washed and dried it is ready for use. The film is so thin that in all ordinary cases the negative may be printed from either side. (viii)

Carbutt’s celluloid films were soon being advertised in Britain (ix). Initially a mail order service only was provided, prices being advertised in dollars and orders ‘sent by mail to any part of the world without fear of breakage’. British agencies for Carbutt’s products were soon set up, and celluloid films could be bought from such well-known suppliers as The London Stereoscopic Company and Watson & Sons.

British dry-plate manufacturers lost no time in bringing out celluloid films of their own. As early as December 1888, The Photographic News could report:

There has been much talk about the American celluloid films and their uses, both to the tourist and the workers at home, and numerous enquiries have been made as to the blank celluloid films ready for coating. We find that the British Xylonite Company, of High Street, Homerton, is supplying transparent films polished on both sides, and a trifle thicker than the American films, at a cost of five shillings a dozen for whole-plate size. (x)

British photographers did not have to rely for very long on having to coat their own films. By September 1889, at least two British firms were advertising their own celluloid films—Wood and J D England (xi). England described his celluloid negative films as follows:

These films form a perfect substitute for glass plates, and have all the advantages of portability and lightness of paper films without their disadvantages, while all fear of breakage is avoided, and also there is no abrasion of the dark slides in travelling, which causes spots on the negative. For cloud negatives they are perfect as they can be printed from either side. The treatment required in making negatives by means of these films is exactly the same as that for dry plates. No extra time or trouble is necessary.

In 1892 England described in detail the process of manufacturing the celluloid sheets used in the preparation of his negative films:

A pile of pure white paper is acted upon by nitric and sulphuric acid, converting it into litro-cellulose. It is washed to free it from the acids, and then treated with wood spirit and camphor, producing a jelly-like block, which is then subjected to great pressure, which is sustained for a period of several weeks. The block, from which most of the spirit is now evaporated, is put into a machine something like a planing machine, and is cut into shavings or sheets of the thickness of the film required; each shaving or sheet, which measures 50 by 20 inches, is now hung up to dry for a period of about three months, in order to thoroughly season it and prevent any after-change.

Each sheet is then taken and rolled under heavy pressure between heated metal plates, to obliterate the marks of the cutting knife. The metal plates are either polished or grained, according to the surface required, the polished giving the smooth film and the grained the matt surface… The gelatine emulsion is spread over the sheets by means of special appliances, and which produces a film of gelatino-bromide of silver of great uniformity. The emulsion is the same as that used in the preparation of dry plates, and the film, when dry, is precisely the same as a glass plate, with the exception that the support is celluloid instead of glass. (xii)

Despite its obvious advantages, celluloid did not attain any great degree of popularity in the 1890s with what was a largely conservative-minded photographic community. When the initial novelty wore off, a number of criticisms began to be voiced, in particular regarding the alleged deleterious effect of camphor on the emulsion:

It is no new thing in photography to find that when a new product or material is brought into use it at first enjoys nothing but praise from those who first experience the novelty of its advantages without recognising its defects. Later on comes a period when it suffers as much condemnation from those who, its novelty having worn off, are beginning to find out its defects…

It is scarcely possible or likely that a purely artificial product like celluloid will be found in use to present the variations and uncertainties met with in the case of gelatine, but it is quite certain that before it is finally given a fixed place in photography it will meet many opponents and many adverse critics, both interested and otherwise. It will take time of course, to fairly decide upon many points in its character, and to establish or demolish its claim as a perfect substitute for glass. So far we can say no more than that it is, apparently, as near perfection in that direction as we can hope to approach, but it remains to be seen whether it does or does not develop at present unrecognised features which may materially detract from its advantages. (xiii)

The ultimate success of celluloid in photography was to come not from exploiting existing markets and practitioners but from the creation in the 1890s of two completely new areas—the phenomenal growth of amateur snapshot photography leading from the work of George Eastman and his Kodak camera, and the birth of cinematography.

Part 2: The development of celluloid roll film

Part 3: The beginnings of cinema


i. Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Photographie, March 4, 1881, p 74.
ii. Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Photographie, April 1, 1881, p 93.
iii. Reported in The British Journal of Photography. June 9, 1882, p 336. See also Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Photographie, June, 1882, pp 151-153.
iv. Colonel J Waterhouse, ‘Celluloid Films’ in The British Journal Photographic Almanac, 1890, pp 566-568.
v. Ibid.
vi. Reported in the British Journal of Photography, December 21, 1888, p 806.
vii. The Philadelphia Photographer, November 3, 1888, p 672.
Last updated: December 2012
viii. The Photographic News, November 23, 1888, p 737.
ix. The first English advertisement for Carbutt’s films that I have been able to trace appeared in ‘The British Journal Photographic Almanac’, 1889, p 845.
x. The Photographic News, December 28, 1888, p 824.
xi. See The Photographic Journal, September 28, 1889 p v and p xvi.
xii. The British Journal of Photography, February 5, 1892, p 87.
xiii. The British Journal of Photography, July 19, 1889, p 469.

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