How Silent Films Help You Understand History (Better, Much Better)

A couple stories circulating in the media recently had levels of ridiculousness so high (admittedly an easy bar to reach nowadays) that they inspired me to explore a topic near and dear to my heart: how silent films can help us understand history. Better. Much better, since it helps to, you know, see history, at least from the 1880s onwards. And I want to show how a deeper understanding of history isn’t just some neat perk to help add more trivia nuggets to your noggin, but something that can have huge real-word ramifications–especially today.

Image result for 1920s newspaper reading
“Yup, those are high levels of ridiculousness alright.”

Now, I like discussing overall societal trends in this blog in a generalized fashion, but I usually avoid specific news stories. Partly because the blog doesn’t need to get super dated (my blog topic’s already dated, thank yew very much), and mainly because I really don’t feel like bringing the soul-sucking, fang-dripping, grinning, oozing specter of politics into my teensy corner of the blogosphere. That denizen of the Hellmouth can stay in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, okay–and besides, it’s infesting everything enough as it is. So while the following two stories are easy to discuss in a polarizing political fashion, they’re also very much related to general societal trends. I’ll allow it!

First up: the viral Cracker Barrel infographic-of-sorts–my apologies for the smattering of uncouth vernacular therein:

Sorry I disappeared for a few minutes, I was just banging my head against the wall and smacked it a little too hard. I feel better now. What were we talking about? Oh yes–

As you hopefully guessed, the “info” in this Twitter post is made up. One clue is that cracker barrels were actually…barrels full of soda crackers, for gosh darn sakes. I’m hoping the image was created as a joke, maybe to see how easily people fall for false information. (Either that or someone really has it out for Cracker Barrel.)

So of course many folks did fall for it. Apparently, loads of people have no idea that small stores used to actually have barrels full of soda crackers, a fact that was common knowledge for a couple centuries to every man, woman, child and their dog. C’mon, guys, you’ve all heard of Krampus but you haven’t heard of literal cracker barrels? Dudes.

Image result for cracker barrel
“Horrifying. I bet Krampus eats there.”

Snopes did a 90% decent takedown of the Cracker Barrel image, even perusing 19th c. newspaper clips. And they mentioned the old idea of the “cracker barrel philosopher” that was also familiar to every man, woman, child and their dog back then. But why only a 90% decent rating? Well, even their article presents opportunities to sharpen your “historical inaccuracy” senses (you can’t rest ’em for a minute, I swear). According to a historian Snopes interviewed:

“‘Cracker’…was used to refer to poor whites, particularly those inhabiting the frontier regions of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. It is suspected that it was a shortened version of ‘whip-cracker,’ since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip (not to mention the other brutal arenas where those skills were employed).”

Now, let’s read that quote critically. The key phrase: “It is suspected.” In other words, the exact origins of the slur are speculative, admittedly. And here’s the key information: the slur did always refer specifically to “poor whites.” So not people that owned, say, those big southern plantations, which is a mighty relevant distinction that the historian tried to dance around (adding “not to mention the other brutal areas…”). Thus, there is apparently no clear historical evidence that the slur was employed the way the Twitter post was clearly implying.

Image result for 1920s newspaper reading
“Huh. That’s interesting.”

You might be saying, “Okay, what’s the point? The Internet is full of misinformation.” Sure, but in this specific case just a little awareness of history–even just a little history of common Americana–would’ve kept that Twitter post from going very far. And the kind of misinformation in that post isn’t harmless, even if it’s a joke (still crossing my fingers). How did Cracker Barrel employees feel thinking there were folks out there convinced they work for some sort of racist food chain? And aren’t posts like this part of the current trend to find negativity in…well…pretty much everything? Is this making society less divisive, or is the opposite the case?

Now let’s examine how the lack of historical knowledge can have bigger real-world consequences. Let’s examine the great San Francisco School Renaming Debacle.

If you haven’t heard, San Francisco’s Board of Education recently voted to change the names of forty-four schools in order to weed out the names of historical figures their task force has deemed unworthy. The criteria for unworthiness was, shall we say, broad–the figures include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Paul Revere, among others. Locals have not been happy, considering it takes around $100,000 to rename each school at a time when the schools haven’t been open (!), and especially since the research this earnest board has been doing has been–let’s put it gently–embarrassing. If you’re wondering what Paul Revere ever did to anyone besides warn them the British were coming, he was apparently involved in the Penobscot Expedition, which was an American naval fleet formed to fight the British at Penobscot Bay in 1779. The task force saw the words “Penobscot Expedition” and assumed he was involved in colonizing the Penobscot tribe. And that’s just one example.

Image result for harpo marx face
That’s how I feel too, Harpo.

Looking through the lists of names myself, I have to say, the questionable nature of many of the sources–wait. Hold on now. Oh naw

You can peruse the list yourself here, btw.

Err, of all things they could’ve said about Edison nowadays, I guess…? They obviously saw that his studio put out the infamous Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) film, not knowing that Edison a) had nothing to do with Topsy the elephant being put down (for killing three people), an event that was carried out publicly by officials at NYC’s Luna Park, b) he wasn’t even present at the event but crewmembers went and captured it, and c) capturing all sorts of events on film was common for these early studios, which cranked out hundreds of the brief films a year, their only goal being “Will this interest paying audiences?” Now, Edison did apparently experiment with electrocuting smaller animals. He did this specifically at the request of (plot twist) the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was seeking humane ways to put animals down. In this historical context, stating that Edison had a “foundness [sic] for electrocuting animals” is pretty ridiculous. But he had nothing to do with Topsy. You’re welcome, San Francisco Board of Education–my bit of film history knowledge just saved you $100,000 (by the way, I’ll quietly await your concern over the elephant being named “Topsy”).

Now, I’m not bringing this up this news story specifically to talk about the pros and cons of the “rename everything” movement, although that’s a big conversation topic. It’s because when the board was asked if they’d consulted any actual historians about their decisions, they said no–and were miffed at the very idea of talking to real historians. (!!) According to the committee chair of the task force: “What would be the point? History is written and documented pretty well across the board. And so we don’t need to belabor history in that regard. We’re not debating that. There’s no point in debating history in that regard. Either it happened or it didn’t.” (!!!)

Image result for clara bow sad
Clara has no problems with how she’s documented in Hollywood Babylon.

Okay, this time I banged my head against the wall so hard it went right through it–didn’t know my neck was that strong! I guess that’s good to know. Fortunately, knocking myself unconscious lead to a refreshing two-hour nap, so now I’m bright-eyed and ready to keep tackling this story.

Much consternation has ensued over the board’s decisions and its poo-pooing of learned historians, which gives me hope. A New Yorker journalist decided to interview the president of the school board and to his credit did a good job of taking the board’s decisions to task (and managed not to bang his head through a wall). Here’s how she responded when he pointed out some of the committee’s research errors:

So none of the errors that I read to you about previous entries made you worried that maybe this was done in a slightly haphazard way?

No, because I’ve already shared with you that the people who have contributed to this process are also part of a community that is taking it as seriously as we would want them to. And they’re contributing through diverse perspectives and experiences that are often not included, and that we need to acknowledge.

I’m not quite sure what that means when we are talking about things that did or didn’t happen.

I think what you’re pointing to and what I keep hearing is you’re trying to undermine the work that has been done through this process. And I’m moving away from the idea that it was haphazard.

But it seems like we should have some sense of whether what they did was historically correct or not. No?

I’m open for that conversation.

O.K. Well, I just mentioned the Paul Revere thing. I know there was a question about James Russell Lowell and whether he wanted Black people to vote, which he was actually in favor of. The name of this businessman, James Lick, was ordered removed because his foundation funded an installation that didn’t go up until almost two decades after he died.

Right, I see what you mean.

But that’s not something you’re concerned about?

No. I mean, I wouldn’t phrase it that way, either. I think it would just require more dialogue. I know the committee is still meeting, and they’re still open to that. So it’s not that it’s not a concern. I think it’s something that’s missing without a dialogue.

But the committee member said, essentially, “things are true or false.” And so it seems like if they’re false, then that doesn’t necessarily call for more dialogue; it calls for more accurate history.

I think anyone can agree with that.

So here we have a real-world example of what can happen when you’re not familiar with doing historical research and haven’t considered what it means to have good sources, or even considered why it’s essential to distinguish good sources from bad ones in the first place. And not only that, but you can’t even fathom why it’s necessary to talk to people who have poured their lives into detailed, factual studies of the past, which is much like refusing to talk to an architect about how to make a skyscraper. And I’ll add that the folks in this example are in the field of education, making big decisions for an entire school system with millions of dollars at stake.

Image result for louise fazenda the village chestnut
My brain right now.

When I see news stories like the ones above, all I can think is: “Man, just studying the history and context behind a few favorite silent films alone would help so much here.” It’s easy enough to say, “Geez people, study more history so we can help prevent debacles like the ones above,” but half the battle is to show how to study it well in the first place (hint: the first three results from Google aren’t enough). And studying history isn’t exactly easy, either, because there’s kind of a lot to cover and developing good research skills takes time (I can sure relate to that). Where the heck do you even start? You’ve probably figured out my answer: “Why not watch some silent films? At least some silent comedies. It’ll be fun, I promise–and you’ll never look at history the same way again!”

I speak from personal experience. I liked studying history in school for the most part, but like many people I didn’t find the usual “names and dates” method enthralling. What did interest me was watching documentaries and looking through art history books (rare fact: if I had to pick a topic other than silents to blog about, it’d be art history). It all made history tangible. And once I discovered silent films that interest was cranked up 100%, especially thanks to (you guessed it) Buster Keaton films. Not only did early 20th century history become far more tangible to me, it was also entertaining to learn about, and I found myself growing deeply passionate about it. Passion is key–it’s a little light that helps you keep seeking more.

Photo by Josh Hild on

We have the tendency to generalize and compress vast swathes of time (lumping distinct decades under the “Victorian” label, for example). We forget that history is the incredibly complex, incredibly detailed story of actual human beings like ourselves. I bet you could spend a lifetime studying about the events that happened across the globe just in a single day. When it comes to examining early 20th century history, there’s something so special, so clarifying, about early films. Even photographs seldom match their impact. You don’t just hear about the bustling streets of New York City in the 1920s–you get to see them. You don’t just imagine certain historical figures from the 1910s–you get to watch them in action. Heck, you even get to see horse-drawn delivery wagons and organ grinders’ monkeys and…cracker barrels.

By gum, I think I see one!

On film, Victorians and Edwardians blink, breathe, walk, talk, laugh–they are humanized. The places where they lived come alive too–little stores that don’t exist anymore bustle with customers, torn-down amusement parks are full of lights and faces and whirling rides, buildings that are old and in disrepair today are freshly-built and fashionable. Once you see this–really see it–history itself is illuminated, even those countless eras that weren’t lucky enough to be captured on film. Because weren’t serfs from the 1300s or sages from the Tang Dynasty all real, blinking, breathing people too?

Not everyone will be as enthralled by silent films as I am, of course. What inspires one person doesn’t always inspire another. And yet, much like how I’ve felt that more people would enjoy silent films if they were just exposed to them, I feel that silents could be a wonderful tool for helping people gain a deeper, better understanding of history. Ultimately, gaining that understanding sharpens our critical thinking skills and helps us discern fact from fiction far more easily. What could be more useful for navigating the ocean of the Internet, which abounds with misinformation? What could be more applicable to countless situations in everyday life, like the divisive, expensive push to rename those schools?

Image result for rembrandt globe
“I say, that does help.”

In this unprecedented age of instantaneous info, we should use every possible tool of enlightenment that we can. Knowledge of the smallest things can make a difference when we least expect it–even something as simple as knowing that little country stores used to have barrels of soda crackers.

18 thoughts on “How Silent Films Help You Understand History (Better, Much Better)

  1. “When it comes to examining early 20th century history, there’s something so special, so clarifying, about early films. You don’t just hear about the bustling streets of New York City in the 1920s–you get to see them.”

    Silent film is a historical record of back then. But not just newsreels. We silent fans of the silent stars, we get to see them. We get to travel back in time and watch them ’emote’ up on the big screen, bigger than life. Uh, I mean watch them ’emote’ on the little TV monitor in our living rooms. Seeing Garbo in ‘The Kiss’ is historic proof positive that she was much more than an actress with a beautiful face and big feet. Almost 100 years after she made film history with ‘Flesh and the Devil’, thanks to dvds and TCM, we today fall under the spell of The Sphinx or Bow or Pickford or Buster and Chaplin – just like movie goers did back in the historic 20s.

  2. BRILLIANT piece! I hear that they are taking your advice to heart. They are re-naming BUSTER KEATON Elementary School because they have “proof positive” that he aided the Confederates during the Civil War and Silentology was entered as part of their research evidence!

  3. THANK YOU. I majored in history, and I continue to be an amateur historian. I love looking at the history of super specific topics (you’d be surprised how much there is to learn about the 31st Canadian Infantry Battalion in WWI, for example – enough to make a whole tabletop roleplaying game, in fact, which I did). And this level of misinformation drives me BATTY, because if you just click through and read the first three Google hits from reasonable sources on any of this, you’d get more than the San Francisco school board appears to have. I can’t imagine being a history teacher in that district right now.

    • Oh I can’t either, the frustration must be palpable! I…I hope.

      Yes, they couldn’t have put more than a few minutes of research into each name. I refuse to believe otherwise, lol! It’s maddening, no less because of their arrogant responses to well deserved criticism.

      I greatly applaud your super specific RPG, by the way!

  4. It’s appalling what has happened to the teaching of history in the govt schools. Now students will be studying America’s past as told in the 1619 Project textbook. Not only is the history of America being rewritten and instilled into the minds of the next generation, but the past is being erased. Removing statues and murals of leaders such as George Washington, YES, Washington! and renaming schools and highways etc does not bode well for the future of America.

    My chosen escape from the insanity of what is happening in America is reading the works of historians such as Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Richard Brookhiser and others, whose books are researched using original documents stored in archives. Their sources are cited, meaning they can be ‘fact checked’, if the reader is so inclined. Much of the original documents – such as those written by Washington – have been published.

    In the arena of film, Kevin Brownlow is the dean of silent film history and it’s due to his research that much of the false reporting of those who came before him has been swept into the dustbin of history. And then there are the films themselves, and in them we SEE the clothes, the hairstyles, the cars, trolleys, trains, mansions, the 5-cent cup of coffee with a donut. They’re all gone now, but films are proof that they once existed. The films are history.

    • I like your recommended escapes!

      I’m not happy either about the way some schools are teaching history. It’s a good thing to study areas that have been ignored or glossed over too much, but the trend seems to be to concentrate on as many negatives as possible. This is both biased and related to what psychologists would call “negative thinking.” Both are bad news.

  5. I went to Paul Revere School! The opening lines of Longfellow’s Poem were on the walls of Cafeteria.

    It’s aggravating that the board treats the schools like their own property, which they can rename on a whim, instead of something that belongs to the community, which they are only stewards of.

    Well, back on topic…

    There are some films that you’re going to end up seeing a lot of times. Like The Butcher Boy, for example. But since you know the story and gags, this gives you more change to check out all the interesting details in the background. Silent shorts are often a great way to check out how small business used to work. Would you have guessed that you once could walk in with a bucket and ask it to be filled up with molasses? 🙂 Or that old guys would hang out in a grocery playing checkers with their board propped up on a barrel–no doubt full of crackers? 🙂

    • No doubt! I love that aspect of old comedies, too. All those details in the background. With some shorts (THE BUTCHER BOY is a perfect example) there’s something new to discover every time. And sometimes a good restoration reveals lots of previously fuzzy details, too!

      I’m with ya on that school board’s attitude–oy!

        • Loved the pics, Nick! I think it would be so cool if more of these old theaters were rehabbed and turned into microcinemas. Theaters in general were hit so hard by the pandemic closures, it wouldn’t surprise me if eventually there’s a revival of interest in the theater experience.

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