Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Progressive Era

Manhattan Trade School for Girls (1911)

This short documentary about a New York school was evidently made for fundraising purposes. It shows the day-to-day activities at a progressive institution attempting to give working class and especially immigrant women a chance at making enough money to support themselves in an urban, industrial economy.

The movie begins with a series of intertitles that inform us of the difficult economic situation that many young women found themselves in when they left compulsory education. In “blind alley” jobs in shops and factories, they often earned 2 or 3 dollars a week, and had little opportunity for raises or advancement. The one-year program at the Manhattan Trade School can teach them skills, particularly in running sewing machines or other industrial machines that will give them an edge in employment. We see a group of girls filling out applications at their elementary school and then going to the Trade School for the first time. We then begin to see the program of classes.

Interestingly, the first shots of the school’s program emphasize the physical education that is included. We see girls tossing a ball, having their backs measured for posture, and engaged in a simple folk dancing class. This probably reflects the progressive sense that urban living was unhealthy and the importance of physical fitness, though it may also have been intended to perk up the interests of male donors – the girls are shirtless (though covered) for the “back-straightening exercises” sequence. Continuing our interest in the girls’ health, we then see girls preparing “nourishing meals” in the community kitchen. Two girls carefully measure the amount of batter to be added to a tin, using a scale to determine when it is enough, while another peels endless potatoes.

After this the focus is on more the kind of classes we expected to see. The girls are introduced to us by name, and many of them appear to be immigrants and/or Jewish (“Millie Spiro,” “Rosa Pasquale,” “Miriam Levy”). They learn basic sewing, millinery, dressmaking, “novelty box decoration,” “sample mounting,” machine operating, etc. They also receive instruction on personal economy and frugality – how to make the most from their low wages. The working conditions look bleak by our standards today, but there is enough light and air and no one appears to be in physical danger. Older women are on hand to supervise and offer suggestions, and the girls appear to be intent on getting their work done, not particularly distracted by the camera or interested in slacking. At the end of the movie, we see the girls receiving their certificates, and an intertitle tells us the salaries of their first jobs  – one is making $20 per week at “straw operating!”

To put this movie in perspective, it’s worth mentioning that it came out the same year that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took the lives of 123 young women who were working in the most appallingly unsafe industrial conditions in a sweat shop in New York City. Many of these women were immigrants, and many immigrants continued to work under unsafe conditions even after new laws were passed to protect workers. The Manhattan Trade School was intended to be a more positive solution to this situation. Children could leave school legally at age 14 and many working class boys and girls would immediately take work to support their families at that age. Some, especially in immigrant families, didn’t even get that far. The Trade School’s brief program was supported by grants to make it possible for the students to receive small stipends and the work they did in classes was sold to support the school as well. The “trades” taught at this school were not, for the most part, seen as professions, but as better alternatives to low-paying jobs for unmarried girls until they found a husband. Some probably did continue piecework of one kind or another from the home as well, which may explain the emphasis on “novelty box making” or “artificial flower making” we see here. This movie is a very interesting glimpse into the reality of life for many people at the time, although of course it is carefully edited to make the school look as good as possible!

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sadie Smith, Mary Johnson, Millie Spiro, Rosa Pasquale, Miriam Levy

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Saved by the Juvenile Court (1913, Fragment)

This is a re-edited segment of footage of Ben Lindsey, known as “the Kid’s Judge,” apparently designed as campaign propaganda during an effort to recall him engineered by political enemies. Accordingly, it has to be understood as propaganda, but it does show images of the judge in his public role from the time.

The movie begins, unsurprisingly, with a portrait of the judge himself, smiling benignly at the camera from behind a desk. Then it introduces his assistant, Mrs. Greggory, who we are told, is “the only woman associate judge in the world.” She also sits behind a desk, but she is writing something, distracted from the camera for most of the shot. Next we see “a few of judge Lindsey’s most ardent admirers,” who are young boys in working class attire. They appear to really enjoy being in front of the camera, and do their best to crowd around the judge and get a handshake. Lindsey lifts one of the smaller boys to his shoulders. The subsequent shots purport to show Judge Lindsey during a typical working day. First he leaves his large house and wholesome-looking children. Then, he meets a colleague in front of the courthouse and has an earnest discussion as they enter. Then, the Intertitles tell us, “the probation boys arrive” and a crowd of eager young kids pour into the open doors of the courthouse. A brief narrative occurs when an “old maid” brings in a boy whose ball hit her dog. She flails and argues, while judge Lindsey stands protectively next to the accused, his hand upon his shoulder. Mrs. Greggory at first tries to calm the old maid, but after she storms out in a huff, she joins Lindsey at his desk, apparently assisting with the paperwork of the case. The final shot shows “Judge Lindsey and his campaign kids.” Lindsey is shown making a fiery speech to a group of the same kind of boys (maybe the same boys) in the previous shots. One of them holds up a sign. On one side it reads “Vote for the Kid’s Judge.” On the other, “Down Wid de Boss.”

Judge Ben Lindsey is remembered today for being the man who brought the juvenile courts to Colorado, and he really did devote much of his career to working with boys in trouble (he felt the problems of girls “too complicated” for him to tackle). He also had many political enemies in both parties in the Denver area and was constantly fighting to keep his seat. The mention of Mrs. Greggory’s unique status is partly explained by the importance of progressive women’s votes in his election, although it struck me that she doesn’t even merit a first name. The kids in this movie may well have actually been probationers who had been through his court – the judge is reputed to have had a paternal relationship with his charges and to have defended their rights aggressively – but of course the scenes are all set-ups, not genuinely spontaneous displays of their affection for him. These scenes are taken from a much longer movie with a narrative, but judging from the “acting” ability of the “old maid,” I wouldn’t judge it to be among the best movies of 1913.

Director:Otis Thayer

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ben Lindsey, Mrs. Greggory, unknown boys

Run Time: Unknown

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Venues of 1915: Nickelodeons to Movie Palaces


Last year around this time, I talked about my understanding of the audiences of a century ago. Today, I’d like to expand that a bit by talking about what I’ve learned since then about the places people went to see movies.

My periodization suggests that we are now moving from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Silent Classical Period.” So, the nickelodeons are on the way out? What does that mean? And what the heck is a nickelodeon in the first place?

Let’s start by talking about what a nickelodeon isn’t, first. It’s not an arcade lined with peep-show machines like Kinetescopes, nor is it the name of any such device. That sort of movie-viewing was a brief fad in the late-nineteenth century, which rapidly disappeared when camera-and-projection systems were developed by Lumière, Edison, and others. For some time afterward, movies were shown in temporary venues, like World’s Fairs or museums, or at traditional live theaters adapted for the purpose, as with the Théâtre Robert-Houdin of Georges Méliès.


Both of these were somewhat outside the range of the poorer classes, at least as regular entertainment options. So long as the movies were restricted to these kinds of venues, the demand for new material was small enough to be manageable. But the desire to see moving pictures meant that there was a market for anyone who could make them available cheaply. In 1905, John P. Harris decided to convert a small storefront in Philadelphia to a makeshift theater and show movies there for 5 cents. He called his new establishment a “nickelodeon” from the word for a five-cent-piece and an adaptation of the Greek word for “theater” (“odeion”). His business model, and the name, soon caught on as hundreds of small-time exhibitors began opening dime- and nickel-theaters.

So what was a nickelodeon like? It was not a purpose-built theater, but usually a darkened storefront or back room with some folding chairs and a screen at one end. The seats were level, not graded, so people in the front blocked the view of those behind them. The projector was often out on the floor and the proprietor might run it personally and offer narration to accompany the pictures. As they made more money, they might hire a professional “operator” to run the machine, and possibly put in a piano, or a small band, for accompaniment. The program would often include audience sing-alongs, with slide shows, and sometimes a live vaudeville act. There would be a ticket box at the outside. Shows generally ran thirty minutes, and would include multiple films. In the early years, a good percentage were “actualities” meaning documentary-style images of real or staged events, but demand for narrative stories rapidly grew. Nickelodeons frequently had bad ventilation, uncomfortable seating, and poor fire safety. That last was a particularly big issue, since the nitrate film used at the time was highly flammable, and local fire departments were among the biggest foes of the early motion picture industry.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

There was also a perception, once the middle class press discovered the existence of this cottage industry, that they were places that encouraged vice and laziness among the worst segments of society. It is certainly true that they appealed to the urban working poor and to immigrants. Movies did not require any education to understand, and, since they were silent (and intertitles were limited, especially in the beginning), it didn’t matter what language you spoke. Anyone could understand them. The nickelodeon, so far as I can tell, was a largely American phenomenon, and it partly explains why the United States quickly became one of the largest markets for movies, as they led the world in making them cheaply accessible to the masses. And the masses responded, but meanwhile elites worried over what was really going on in those dark rooms, and might there be some way to “elevate” both the movies and their viewers.

Meanwhile, the owners of these little movie halls were getting rich. They opened more and more shops, in some cases forming empires through franchise systems. There seemed to be no limit to the number that could be opened in a given town – they often lined up in rows on a given street in a poorer neighborhood, and, as long as there were different movies at each one, they all turned a profit. Because supply was so far below demand, many of the more successful exhibitors started going into production, simply in order to be able to have something new to show. For some reason, the industry standard was to change the program every day, which meant that each nickelodeon needed at least 365 original films per year (more, really, since each program included multiple films). It was widely believed that “daily viewers” were the bread-and-butter of the industry, although I haven’t seen any studies that confirm this idea.


One of the results of this economic situation is that the movie industry worked fast and made lots of product, struggling to keep up with the demands of daily change-over in thousands of little storefronts. This partly explains the reluctance of Biograph and other early production companies to move towards making longer films. The nickelodeon owners counted on a full house every half an hour, and they would have to raise prices (possibly losing their audience as a result) if they showed movies lasting more than 20 or 25 minutes. They bought by the reel, not by the story, and sometimes the second part of a two-reeler would be shown first, or alone without any context, to an audience that didn’t realize it was out of sequence. But, the American motion picture industry grew rapidly under all the pressure for new movies.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

Another result is that as the owners got rich, they tried to improve their businesses. They expanded the spaces by buying out extra lots, they made fireproof booths for the projectionist, they improved the seating. Eventually, some of them were making enough money to buy out failing theaters and convert them to movie halls. Then, in 1914, the Mark Strand Theater was built in New York City at a cost of 1 million dollars. It was the first purpose-built movie theater in the world. The improved concept of a movie theater made it possible to attract a higher-class audience, to charge more for admission, and to show longer pictures. The movies were finally becoming an “art form” or at least a cultural model with some degree of acceptance by elites.

Nothing changes overnight, of course, but you can already see the decline of the nickelodeon model in the early teens, as more longer movies start to show up with more “serious” subject matter, partially dictated by the progressive values of movie censors. By 1915, the feature film is an established fact of movie life, and D.W. Griffith famously succeeded in opening “The Birth of a Nation” in $2.00 theaters in various parts of the country. $2.00 was what people paid to see “legitimate” live theater on Broadway at the time. Nickelodeons continued to exist alongside the big theaters for some years to come, but their control of the market had slipped and would never return.

*Note: Much of the information for this article comes from Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.