Tasha Caswell was walking between the shelves containing the film collection of the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford three years ago when she got a strong whiff of vinegar. Caswell, who is CHS’s research and collections associate, with a background in films and photography, knew immediately what that odor meant: vinegar syndrome.
She alerted the other members of the collections department, and soon afterward they applied for a grant to preserve and digitize the invaluable films — many of them home movies that had been donated through the decades. The result: now the public will be able to see these gems on the Connecticut Digital Archive. The films include Charles Lindbergh visiting Hartford for a parade in July 1927, two months after he flew from New York to Paris, and the wedding of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the noted pediatrician, to Jane Davenport Cheney that same year, in Manchester.
During a tour of the film-storage area, Caswell explains the vinegar smell: when the acetate base of the film decays, it releases acetic acid and gives out something that really does remind one of vinegar. “Here’s one that couldn’t be digitized because it’s in such poor condition,” she says, pulling an old reel out of a box: a 28-millimeter home movie, circa 1920. I put my nose down and, sure enough, there is something akin to vinegar.
Thanks to that grant for about $24,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the society was able to loan approximately 75 films to a company called George Blood LP, which specializes in digitizing audiovisual media. CHS has about 50 more films in its collection but will have to apply for another grant to complete the digitizing project. The grant, received in September 2017, also allowed them to digitize thousands of photos and negatives as well as maps, architectural drawings, lithographs and posters.
Caswell takes our photographer and me down to the basement for a tour of the graphics-storage space. She plucks one of the big reels off a shelf. “These were filmed by Ellsworth Grant,” she says, referring to the late historian and brother-in-law of Katharine Hepburn. (She does not appear in the films.)
Because of my curiosity about the Grant collection, Ilene Frank, CHS’s chief curator and chief operating officer, explains in an email: “The Ellsworth Grant films are not in the same jeopardy of deterioration compared to the films we did digitize. The CHS has made digitization of our entire collection a strategic priority, but that will take time and money. We decided to start with the films that were the most rare in terms of format or age, and the ones that had condition issues, such as vinegar syndrome. The Ellsworth Grant films do not meet that criteria, so they will await their day in the digitization lab.”
Caswell next takes us into a small room in the basement that has three large freezers. She opens the center one, revealing four shelves of polyethylene bags containing the original films. That freezer was bought with the grant money. I ask Caswell why there is a sign on the freezer announcing: “explosion proof.” She tells me, “It needs to be this way because nitrate is flammable,” describing the film stock used until the 1950s that was prized for its rich imagery.
Gazing at the preserved films, she says, “It doesn’t look that exciting. But it’s exciting to me! This means they’re preserved. They won’t continue deteriorating. You can’t reverse vinegar syndrome — but you can arrest it. As long as they’re kept in this freezer, they won’t get any worse, which is wonderful.”
Back upstairs, Caswell sets up a laptop to show me how you can now watch some of these films online. (All 75 or so will be available for viewing at some point in May.) After a few clicks, suddenly we are watching Dr. Spock’s wedding, a silent home movie. We see the bridesmaids processional, filmed through trees with leaves waving in the wind. “I don’t know why the filmmaker is standing behind the trees,” Caswell says. “And you don’t see the vows.”
But then here they come, the newlyweds, arm in arm, Spock smiling into his bride’s eyes. “I think home movies are wonderful,” Caswell says. “They show people doing their thing. These were the events in people’s lives: weddings, vacations.”
Caswell shows me another home movie that captures a playful group of young men and women frolicking on Point O’ Woods Beach in Old Lyme in the 1920s. They blow kisses to the camera.
But next we see dramatic footage from a devastating flood that hit Hartford in 1936. The film is titled Too Much Water. A written narration informs us this was “the 1936 Connecticut River flood.” Here are cars of that era struggling to plow through high water in downtown Hartford. Then come people in rowboats. “March 21 — the rise stops at 37.5 feet!” This is followed by “14,900 refugees were cared for,” with footage of clothing donations piled high and an elderly woman being helped out of a small boat.
“I love this project,” Caswell says. “Every part of it is satisfying. We’re preserving the originals; that’s a huge win. And the public access is great. Nobody has watched these films in many years.”
Caswell shows me how easy it is to view the films: go to ctdigitalarchive.org, click CHS and type “amateur film collections” into the search box. The public can also visit CHS at 1 Elizabeth St. in Hartford to see the films, which will also be used in future exhibits.
“I’m hoping people watch our films online,” Caswell says, “and if they have information about what’s depicted, they can contact us.”