Most fans of silent movies know that nitrate film was a little dangerous. Okay, pretty dangerous. Okay, a dangerous flammable object that creates its own oxygen as it burns and caused (and causes) more than its share of destructive fires.
For obvious reasons, moviegoers of the silent era were a bit skittish about being burned to death and early magazines were full of ads for fire extinguishers, shutters for the projection booth and other safety measures.
This ad placed in a 1914 issue of Motion Picture Magazine is a perfect example of the measures being taken to prevent fires, death and destruction.
The H.W. Johns-Manville Co. of New York City designed and manufactured an asbestos booth designed to keep the flaming nitrate in and away from the theater patrons. The fate of the poor projectionist is kept discretely quiet.
The company goes one step further and shows a theater advertising the J-M Asbestos Booth right over the box office. “Come to our theater, where you probably won’t be horribly burned to death!” may seem like an odd thing to brag about but considering the disastrous nitrate fires before the adoption of safety film, it’s not surprising. (The Bazar de la Charité fire in 1897 killed 126. It was caused by the projectionist’s equipment catching fire.)
Fear of death does tend to cloud one’s enjoyment of motion pictures, I must admit. Despite all the troubles with being a modern fan of silent movies, I have to say that Blurays and home theaters are infinitely preferable to a constant fear of death. I just need to find a way to hire a full-time accompanist to play piano for me.
By the way, in my first podcast episode, my guest and I discussed the various ways silent films could kill you, if you want to hear more stories of death and mayhem in the movie theater.
You can look up lots of swell clippings like these at the Media History Digital Library.
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