The Connecticut Historical Society has preserved and digitized over 70 motion pictures in its collection. The film stock was deteriorating and in danger of being lost forever.
The good thing about acetate based film stock is that it lets you know in an obvious way when it is deteriorating.
“So all of the motion picture film is kept in one area in the graphics collection, and when you would walk down the aisle you could smell vinegar,” said Tasha Caswell, a Research and Collections Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society, “and so that was the first, and sort of the most compelling observation. If we don't do something now, we're never going to be able to watch these things.”
It's commonly called "vinegar syndrome”. When the film is exposed to moisture and begins to decay, it produces acetic acid, which gives off a characteristic vinegar smell.
The Connecticut Historical Society applied for, and was awarded a $24,000 Museums for America grant to save these films by digitizing and preserving them, with the ultimate goal of preserving all of the films on the Connecticut Digital Archive, a digital repository for historical documents, photographs and film.
The motion picture collection at the Connecticut Historical Society is a hodgepodge of about 125 films, most of them home movies donated to the organization. Some of the movies have historical significance, like the flood of 1938, soldiers during World War I training in Connecticut to go to the front lines, and a 1918 Red Cross parade in Manchester. But many of them, like all home movies, are simply slices of life captured at a point in time.
“It’s actually interesting how many people documented the building of their homes there seems to be a lot of that,” said Andrea Rapacz, Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the Connecticut Historical Society, “and then there is a lot of vacation footage it seems like as well. One thing that stuck out to me that is not Connecticut, but there is someone who went to New Hampshire and got the ‘old man in the mountain’ which has since crumbled off, so it’s interesting that we have a document of that."
The museum set about prioritizing which movies would be digitized first, but there was a problem - 21 of the 73 films to be digitized were in an unusual format - 28 millimeter. The film stock, manufactured by the Pathé Brothers in Paris, was used primarily in home movie cameras. The format fell out of favor after Kodak introduced 16mm film in 1923. Rapacz said they had to find someone who could digitize 28mm film.
“There was really only one person we could go to because most digitizing companies don't do this so when we found George Blood Audio/Video. They actually had to retrofit some of their equipment to fit our film to be able to run it through,” said Rapacz.
Tasha Caswell shows me some of the a digitized footage, including a home movie from the 1920's showing a happy group of people in their bathing costumes frolicking on Point O' the Woods Beach in Old Lyme.
“Now they are just lining up. It looks like they are going to start doing a little dancing. Having fun. Blowing a kiss,” describes Caswell, “there's someone canoeing in the background, there looks like a platform or something, oh no it's big rock and it looks like a platform in front of it, a woman being carried into the water.”
The rock and the platform at Point O' The Woods are still there. Caswell shows me another home movie - the 1927 wedding of famed pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock to Jane Cheney, a family member of the Cheney Brothers silk manufacturing dynasty in Manchester.
“The camera is in between two trees, so you're like a peeping tom looking at this wedding. We see the women - the bridesmaids, and their dresses and their hats that have ribbons they are probably color coordinated,” said Caswell, “I mean this is just one of the relatives who was there with his camera. Truly that is one the things that I love so much about these films - the lack of polish is very charming.”
Andrea Rapacz says she expects the digitized films will be incorporated in future exhibits, much like the digitized World War I footage was part of the museum's “Facing War: Connecticut During World War I” exhibit which closed in December.