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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Celluloid in boot-heel production


Tom Morgan

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The great film pioneer Georges Méliès had stopped producing films by the the time the Great War started. He was stuck for space in which to keep his more than 500 films, as well as being short of cash, and let the majority of them go so that the celluloid could be melted down and used for the manufacture of heels for soldiers' boots. Does anyone know how celluloid was used in this application?

Tom

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Celluloid was originally developed as an artificial ivory and set in a thick block would easily make a boot heel.

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Celluloid was originally developed as an artificial ivory and set in a thick block would easily make a boot heel.

Thanks for your suggestion. I'm sure you're right about the qualities of celluloid, but we can't say for sure that that's how the material was used. Does anyone else have any industry-specific information (before I start looking for a shoe museum in somewhere like Northampton)? It's ironic that Méliès had to watch his creations being carted off to make boot heels, as he became a stage magician rather than enter the family business, which he found boring. They were shoemakers.

Tom

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Thanks for your suggestion. I'm sure you're right about the qualities of celluloid, but we can't say for sure that that's how the material was used.

Yes we can. Celluloid heel plates were manufactured by DePont in Leominster Ma until the late 1970s. A British patent in the 1920s describes how they were used

"-A celluloid plate a having a layer of linen or the like b secured to its outer surface is secured bv nailing or otherwise to a heel c. A rubber heel pad d is subsequently secured by adhesive to the linen layer b." There are US patents in the 1930s for womens' high heels made from celluloid. Accounts say that the film stock was requisitioned (not sold) and melted down and cast into heel plates

The rubber pad would seem to be essential as celluloid had a habit of exploding if struck hard (there were early complaints of exploding whiff whaff balls one reason for rubber on bats). One has the surreal vision of a battalion marching into a square and coming to a halt with boots stamped down hard and exploding! One wonders if Spike Milligan had heard of celluloid boot heels - exploding boots were a Goon stock in trade.

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I worked for BXL formerly Bakelite-Xylonite Ltd formerly British Xylonite Ltd the company that made 'celluloid' for which our trade name was Xylonite. It was very very flammable, and chemically was related to gun-cotton. All the manufacturing processes (at Brantham, near Manningtree Essex) were carried out in separate buildings to reduce the risk of explosion, and cigarettes and matches were absolutely banned from the site. Next to the Brantham factory was the factory of Bexford Ltd, at the time of which I speak it was a joint venture between BX and Ilford. It made film stock, but I don't know when the switch from flammable cellulose nitrate stock to non-flammable stock was made. I don't think I'd want to be anywhere near somebody melting down nitrate stock to make boot heels! That is an application I've not heard of before, although a short history of the company does mention the plant manager experimenting with Xylonite horseshoes. They were not successful due to the un-paved roads.

As an aside, Margaret Thatcher worked at Lawford Place, the company's research labs, (where I worked also) as a research chemist. Later she worked for Lyons and later still became involved with politics

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It made film stock, but I don't know when the switch from flammable cellulose nitrate stock to non-flammable stock was made.

Although safety stock was made by Kodak in 1908 it was not manufactured commercially for 35mm until about 1928. The British and American film industries did not begin to convert to safety stock in any quantity before 1950 (although Germany (Agfa) did so in 1940). British Kodak and Ilford both began switching production from nitrate to acetate (safety) in 1952.

Chant this as you march along

"I don’t know but I’ve heard tell

Nitrate film will burn like Hell.

If you don’t fry, then you’ll choke

‘Cause it gives off toxic smoke.

I don't know but I’ve been told

Acetate stinks as it gets old.

Vinegar syndrome, real bad scene,

Film won’t go through the machine.

I don’t know but I would bet

Videotape is the worst yet:

Lousy picture, it’s all lines,

Standards changing all the time.

I don’t know so please relate

Why digital is all that great.

Where’s the master for my vaults

When my film’s just ones and noughts?" [Roger Smither]

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