Preservation of Historical Films[1]

Fred W. Perkins*

When Mr. Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, suggested recently to President Coolidge that the government of the United States should make efforts toward the preservation of motion-picture films possessing historical value, he brought to public attention a need that has been increasingly realized by those who believe the value of a visual records of the great events of our Nation and of the world.

We have only to consider how valuable today would be motion pictures of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, of Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg, of the first parade up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington of the Grand Army of the Republic, of Cornwallis at Yorktown, or of George Washington at Valley Forge, to realize the tremendous worth fifty or a hundred years from now of films showing the inaugurations of Presidents McKinley, Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge; the appearance before our troops abroad of President Wilson, the scenes of Armistice Day in Paris, New York and Washington; the return of General Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force; the funerals of the Unknown Soldier, of President Harding and of President Wilson; and many other great events since the motion picture camera became an actuality.

Films of these latter-day events have been made, and most of them still exist. But the whereabouts of some of these films, and whether they will be preserved for the instruction and inspiration of future generations, are questions which deserve the earnest attention of bodies such as the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. For this society is concerned, among other things, with the highest uses and greatest public value of the motion picture, and it is difficult to conceive of any greater use than the preservation in life-like similitude of the great figures that move across the screen of human existence.

The need was illustrated less than a month ago in the motion picture laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Washington Office of the Panama Canal asked us to prepare for inspection and projection some old films that had been found lying in a closet in the capitol Building. We found that the films included ten thousand feet of original negative showing the construction work on the Panama Canal. Decomposition resulting from lack of care had ruined two thousand feet of the negative, and doubtless would have ruined all of it had not somebody stumbled upon this valuable record.

During the World War the Signal Corps of the Army had numerous motion cameramen in the training camps in this country, at the embarkation and debarkation points, and in the camps and fighting zones. The result is 1,800,000 feet of negative dealing with all phases of the war that could be filmed, and including not only pictures of the American troops in France, but in Italy, Belgium, England, Germany, Russia, and Siberia. There are such notable scenes as President Wilson speaking to the troops in France, high lights on his two journeys abroad, the more recent events mentioned in the first part of this paper; and the visits to America of the King and Queen of the Belgians; and of Marshal Foch; and there are other precious pieces of negative, showing such events as the Wright Brothers first airplane flight at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1909.


The officers in charge of this film appreciate its high potential value, and they realize that its custody entails a duty to posterity which becomes more definite each year. But the work of cataloguing and periodically inspecting and perhaps renewing 1,800,000 feet of negative is a job of such size that they frankly fear it cannot be done with the personnel and money now devoted to the purpose.

There is valuable historical negative in other custody. The Aeronautical branch of the Navy has pictures showing the progress of naval aviation since 1918; the Navy recruiting bureau has films of the trans-Atlantic airplane flight in 1919, and of the Naval Railway Batteries in action on the Western front; the Army Air Service has a picture of the Round-The-World Flight; the National Museum of the Smithsonian has films showing President Wilson's cabinet, Rear Admiral Fletcher and General Funston, and other valuable pieces of negative, including a short piece, made in 1897, showing two great race horses, Start Pointer and Joe Patchen. The Department of Agriculture has a large amount of negative, some of which is of historical value because of its relation to the development of farming in this country and its pictures of the men who have occupies high positions in the department.

Then in non-governmental custody there is undoubtedly a large amount of valuable material. A complete picture of the important events since the motion picture began could not be made up without assistance from the companies specializing in news and current events films. An undoubted historical value is possessed, also, by many films staged primarily for theatrical purposes, such as "The Birth of A Nation", "The Covered Wagon", "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse", " The Big Parade" and many others. The Yale History Series is a better visualization of our countries development than is likely to be made when another hundred years has further mellowed or distorted the facts in the case, and the negatives should be preserved.

There is much variation in the care that is being given to these films. Some are being kept under conditions that are the best so far as is now known.  But there are others to which very little if any care is being given.  The need is for a central depository for such films- a depository responsible not only for the preservation of films possessing historical value, but for the gathering of all that are now obtainable, and also for obtaining a record of future great events. The administrative head of such a depository must have a conception of historical values, a knowledge of historical motion pictures now existing, and thorough acquaintance with the characteristics of photographic film.  The depository should not be limited by commercial considerations and should have an official government status.

The plan as proposed to President Coolidge by Mr. Hays called for incorporating in the new projected Archives Building in Washington at least twenty film storage vaults with a total capacity of 20,000,000 feet of film.  It is assumed that adequate laboratory equipment to care for the films thus stored is contemplated.  Such equipment will be necessary, and there must be trained personnel to operate it.

The question now comes-who knows how long motion picture film will last?  How long can film records of great events be preserved?  As is probably known to all members of this Society, there is no definite answer to this question.  The motion picture is still so young that there has not been opportunity to test whether a film will maintain its properties for even a half century.  But we do know that some of the earliest motion picture films have been preserved for thirty years or more, and we know that “still” negatives made on film have existed for even a longer period.

The experiences of the laboratory with which I am connected emphasize the extreme importance of proper development, proper fixing and proper washing.  In all cases where our negatives have shown early decadence it has been possible to trace the trouble to some fault in the original laboratory process.  But given proper development, fixing and washing, there must still be the most painstaking care to ward off decay and decomposition over a long period.  The best information on this phase of the question that has come to me is from the Eastman Kodak Company, which advises that valuable negative be wound on wooden cores having no metal side flanges, be wrapped in black paper, placed in fibre-lined cans, sealed with tape and stored in the usual film vaults kept at a temperature around 50 degrees F.  This temperature is regarded by Eastman Company as being sufficiently low to prevent decomposition, and the Company also points out that too low a temperature might cause moisture condensation on the films when the vaults are opened.  The Eastman Company adds that films should be examined at periodic intervals, possibly every two years, and should be rewound in a room having a relative humidity around 70 per cent.  On such occasions, if there are any signs of destruction of the image, or if the film is becoming excessively brittle, new duplicate negative s should be made.

With the great quantity o research genius available in this Society and in the motion picture industry in general, and also in some of the Federal and State Bureaus, there is possibility of the discovery of better methods of preserving film.  For instance, there seems to be a field of research in the direction of devising a chemical coating or a gaseous treatment that would ward off the agents of decay.  But the need of immediate action toward the preservation of valuable films now existing does not permit delay in the use of the best methods so far as they are now known.  The members of this Society and all of the other bodies working for the highest uses of the motion picture will be doing a service for posterity, and for the industry as well, if they will encourage research along the lines suggested; but first and foremost, if they will give the benefit of their opinions and recommendations on the proposal that the Government preserve historical films.





[1] Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, Oct. 1926, # 27

Reprinted through coutresy SMPTE. No unauthorized duplication without permission.

* Chief, Office of Motion Pictures, United States Department of Agriculture.