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A 19th Century YouTube

Updated on July 5, 2014
Library of Congress Home Page
Library of Congress Home Page
Library of Congress - American Memories Home Page
Library of Congress - American Memories Home Page

The Birth of the Movie Industry

If you enjoy surfing through and watching the clips YouTub you will probably enjoy the online Edison video collection at the Library of Congress website.

Thomas Edison was a prolific American inventor and part of his genius lay in the fact that he built a company dedicated to inventing new products which the company then manufactured and marketed. In addition to his inventions in the area of delivery of electricity and the light bulb, Edison and his associates also invented the phonograph – the 19th century predecessor to today's CDs and iPods, the movie camera and movie projector. However, the movie camera and projector, like today's PCs and televisions, are hardware devices whose value derives from the software that runs on them.

Almost as soon as his organization invented the movie camera and projector in 1891, Edison had his company go to work producing the software (movies in this case) needed to add value to the hardware they were producing. A movie studio was added to the company's property. Photographers and actors were hired to produce films in the studio while other photographers were sent into the field to film anything that might be of interest.

Movies in this collection can be viewed online, downloaded or purchased on media from the Library. Like works in any other library, they are available for personal use but, since most are still subject to copyright, cannot legally be used for other purposes including publishing them on the web (which is why I am using links to their location on the Library of Congress's website rather than downloading them and reproducing them here directly).

Here is a brief sampling of a few of the 341 late 19th century and early 20th century films by the Edison Company available for viewing on the site.

Dickson Greeting – this is a fragment of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, the assistant to whom Edison entrusted the task of figuring out how to build a camera and projector capable of making and showing motion pictures, testing the new device. This fragment was filmed in 1891, the same year as the motion picture camera was invented and is probably one of the first motion picture films made.

A Commentary on Turn of the Century American Life

Dickson Experimental Sound Film - this piece was shot between September 1894 and April 2, 1895 at Edison's Black Maria studio in New Jersey. It was an attempt by Dickson to create a motion picture with sound a mere three years after inventing the motion picture camera and projector. Since Edison had earlier invented the phonograph to record sound, Dickson attempted to put the two together. Here we see two men dancing while a violinist plays a violin into the large speaker of a sound recorder. The sound for the movie would have been on a separate recording cylinder which, assuming the experiment was successful, has apparently been lost. Among the technical difficulities with this process would have been the problem of synchronization of sound and picture as both were on separate media and hardware (much like filming a movie today on a DVD while recording the sound on a CD and attempting to play them, in their separate players, at once).

Seminary Girls – An 1897 short depicting girls in a school dorm room having a good time pillow fight until a stern teacher enters and puts a halt to the fun.

Why Mrs Jones Got a Divorce – filmed between 1899 and 1900 this is the story of Mr. Jones coming home unexpectedly from a business trip and finding the family's attractive cook making bread in the kitchen. Jones inquires about his wife and, after being told that she is out, decides he is hungry and asks for something to eat while, at the same time making a playful little pass at the cook. The cook, whose hands are covered with flour, responds with a hug leaving her hand prints on the back of his suit. Just then Mrs. Jones arrives unexpectedly and, seeing the flour on her husband's suit, accuses him of having an affair with the cook and, following an argument dumps the bowl of flour on him and stomps out of the room.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - An 1895 film showing the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. While lacking the color and special effects of today's movies, this was a dramatic leap in effects from what could be portrayed in a stage play.

May Irwin Kiss – this 1896 smash hit, filmed at the Edison Company's Black Maria Studio, was a film recreation of the kissing scene from the New York City stage comedy entitled The Widow Jones, staring May Irwin and John Rice. Thanks to the new technology, people throughout the U.S. and abroad could see two famous stars of the New York stage performing one of the scenes from their hit play. Remember, this was an era when rural America's only access to the theater was an occasional visit by traveling troupes of lessor actors performing scenes from popular productions.

U.S. troops landing at Daiquirí, Cuba - 1898 film clip of the land of the first American troops to land in Cuba (then still a colony of Spain) on June 22, 1898 during the Spanish American War. Daiquirí, was chosen as the landing site for General William Shafter's expeditionary force because of the two piers perviously built there by an American mining company and because of the availability of fresh water. An unintended consequence of the choice of Daiquirí, was the discovery, by Americans of the cocktail that is known to this day as the daiquiri. Thus, in addition to the territories Puerto Rico and Guam, the U.S. also acquired a refreshing cocktail as part of the spoils of this war.

2nd Special Service Battalion, Canadian Infantry—parade - An 1899 film of a troop of Canadian infantry marching out of the old city of Quebec to board ships to take them to the Transvaal in South Africa where the mother country, England, was fighting the Boer War. Canadians line the parade route waving English flags as their sons and husbands pass in parade.

The Kiss - An actor and actress in a playful kissing clip filmed in 1900. The clothes may be somewhat out of date and more than people wear today, but Victorian prudes these were not.

Battle of Mafeking - Filmed in April of 1900 in the Orange Mountains area of West Orange, New Jersey, this is a re-enactment of the battle of Mafeking in South Africa during the Boer War. In this scene a Company of Scots Highlanders prepare to attack a Boer position when they are surprised by an attack of Boer cavalry on their flank.

These are but a sample of the 341 films in the Edison collection, a listing of which can be found by clicking on one of the links (for listings by name, date or genre) at the bottom of the Edison Motion Picture page on the Library's website. The Edison collection is but one of the motion picture collections at the library, all of which give an insight into American life and culture as it evolved in the twentieth century.

© 2007 Chuck Nugent


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      vmax 8 years ago

      From the Boer War - Cuba - Seminary Girls, all very interesting selections in film history. Again Master Chuck I found your historical reach most informative. Dr. Carlson would be proud {:{)}

    • Paper Money profile image

      Paper Money 10 years ago

      Wow what a great hub. I'm amazed that so much film roll has survived. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Chuck profile image

      Chuck Nugent 10 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Thanks, Jimmy. I found the site very interesting myself..... Chuck

    • jimmythejock profile image

      James Paterson 10 years ago from Scotland

      Great hub chuck very interesting.....jimmy