Celluloid, not just for old films

If you like pulpy action films, odds are you saw the Tarantino blood fest that is Inglourious Basterds, in which Nitrate-based celluloid film stock, the industry-standard before about 1950, has a key plot point, thus:

The Tarantino film borrows a clip from the 1936 Hitchcock classic, Sabotage, seen here:

For a quick note, celluloid dates back to the 1870s and is made from nitrocellulose and camphor, which gives the product a slight Vicks Vapor rub smell and a greasy texture. It is also, like the movies say, flammable and, going into more detail, is prone to decay to the point of dust over time– which is why hundreds of old films have disappeared entirely.

Besides film, a lot of inexpensive pocket knives from the 1920s and 30s— particularly those with printed advertisements– had celluloid handles that today are often decomposing to the point of cracking and breaking off, their carbon steel blades showing rusting stains from the prolonged leaching effect of the nitrate.

My old Colt M1903– sent to Honeyman Hardware in Portland in July 1911– with a period celluloid penknife that, so far, has minimal decay. The grips on the Colt are bakelite, another pre-plastic plastic.

Celluloid was also used occasionally for pistol grips, a stand-in for pearl and mother of pearl before plastic came along.

For instance, I just saw this bad boy in a series of beat-up wheelguns for sale over at Centerfire Systems that have all seen much better days but have a genuine noir period patina to them.

Looks right out of a Mickey Spillane film

It is a S&W Model 37 snubby, a 38 Special follow up to the Chief’s Special that debuted in 1951. While the grips are billed as “Synthetic Pearl” they look like celluloid to me, perhaps made originally for a S&W Terrier.

As it has what seems to be a case number pencil etched on the top strap, I would bet this old fella has been in a police evidence locker for decades and was just sold to Centerfire in a cleanout when the agency came under new management.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.