A version of this article was first published on Classic Movie Hub–I hope you enjoy it!
We’re all at least somewhat familiar with nickelodeons, the tiny 1900s-era theaters where patrons paid a nickel to take in a few films. And we all know that these quaint little storefronts evolved into the familiar neighborhood theaters and big city “movie palaces.” But not everyone knows exactly what nickelodeon-era motion pictures were like–aside from the usual Georges Méliès films, little clips of ladies dancing, and famous early works like The Great Train Robbery (1903).
So if you could travel over a century back in time and pop into the nearest nickelodeon, what films were you likely to see? The subjects were as endless back then as they are on YouTube today–everything from travelogues to comedies to military films to, yes, films of funny animals.
Many nickelodeon films had originally played in 1890s traveling picture shows, the humble ancestor of the “movie house” era. Traveling from town to town armed with films, slides, and projectors, neatly-dressed entertainers set up shop in a school, church, or even a tent and sell tickets for an evening’s worth of entertainment. Many of those same films ended up in nickelodeons, mixed in with the “new” films that were being churned out like crazy to meet the demand.
While the majority of 1900s films have disappeared (which, by the way, accounts for much of the high “lost silent films” count), fortunately some catalogs of rental films survive. These included descriptions of films and the lengths of the physical strips of films themselves. (Dates were seldom included, being an era of rampant copyright infringement and all.) A standard reel of film was 1000 feet or about ten minutes long. Many 1890s-1900s films at the time were under 500 feet long or even less than 100. So for every 10-minute single-reel production you could find a few dozen little films like the popular The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905), which was 300 feet, or The Four Troublesome Heads (1898), which ran a mere 75 feet.
Unsurprisingly, the largest group of films fell under the “comic” label. The titles are endearingly quaint (and pretty self-explanatory) today: How Mike Got the Soap in His Eyes (1903), Firing the Cook (1903), Lady Plumpton’s Motor Car (1904), The Bull and the Picnickers (1902). A number of very short films illustrated old jokes, like How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed (1898), a 28-foot film showing how a maid “mistakes the order and brings in the salad in a state of dishabille hardly allowable in polite society.” (Yes, Stan and Ollie fans, that joke goes way back!) There were even riffs on well-known films, like Something Good–Negro Kiss (1898), described as a “burlesque on the John Rice and May Irwin Kiss” (this film was rediscovered only a couple years ago).
Popular comic plots included clashes between maids and cooks, run-ins with tramps, dignified ladies and gentlemen in undignified situations, romantic rivalries, and sometimes ladies getting back at annoying suitors. (Just in case you forgot these were Victorian and Edwardian films!) One popular film was The Insurance Collector (1903), showing the titular character attempting to woo a woman’s pretty daughter, who “rejects the collector’s advance and shoves him into the [wash] tub, where he flounders while the two women douse him with water.”
Another very popular comic genre revolved around the “bad boy” or “Mischievous Willie” character, already familiar from comic strips. These mischievous boys were always playing rather violent pranks on their elders. In Tommy’s Trick on Grandpa (1900), “Tommy has filled his grandpa’s big Dutch pipe with powder, and the old gentleman sits down to the enjoy his evening smoke. A terrific explosion occurs.” Similarly, A Ringer Joke on His Pa (date unknown) involved the “Bad Boy” tying a cord to his napping father’s chair and attaching the other end to a clothes wringer. When mother starts wringing out the laundry the dad’s chair tips over. Kids in the audience were no doubt delighted.
Many other comic films were unapologetically surreal, like A Jersey Skeeter (1900), in which a giant mosquito tries to bite a farmer, “and after sharpening its bill on his grindstone, seizes the farmer by the seat of his trousers and carries him away.” Others, like Michael Casey and the Steam Roller (1902), make you long to see what kind of primitive effects were involved: “The engineer does not see him, and the great machine weighing several tons passes over his body, flattening it out like a piece of sole leather. Other workmen rush to the rescue and discover Casey in his flattened condition, and about twice his normal length…One of the workmen procures a barrel, and standing upon it he pounds Casey upon the head with a great mallet until he has driven him down to his proper height and circumference.”
Non-comic genres were common too, of course, especially travel films with such varying locations as Panorama of “Miles Canyon” (1903), Fijian Fire Walk or Fire Dance (date unknown), Niagara Falls in Winter (date unknown), or From Monte Carlo to Monaco (1902). Even mundane scenes were interesting since they showed bits of everyday life in exotic locations, such as Street Cleaning in Porto Rico (date unknown) or A Ferry in the Far East (1904), which showed how “unlike other ferries, the Eastern people hung an immense raft on cables across the stream and the raft is pulled across.”
Shots of naval ships and military drills were also standard fare at nickelodeons, as were recreations of various battles. While thrilling at the time, these recreations sound pretty modest today. The popular Advance of Kansas Volunteers, Caloocan (1899) showed U.S. troops in the midst of a battle: “This is one of the best battle pictures ever made. The first firing is done directly toward the front of the picture, and the advance of US. troops apparently through the screen is very exciting; the gradual disappearance of the fighters sustaining the interest to the end.” Advance was a mere 60 feet long!
There were several other popular genres in the nickelodeon era, of course, including the religious genre and one intriguingly called “mysterious.” I can certainly cover a few more in the future–especially if it’s by popular demand!
Information on the films in this article is from historian Darren Nemeth’s reprint of the 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 22, a very rare catalog from his collection. It’s a wealth of information for anyone interested in the very early days of film and is highly recommended! IMDb.com and loc.gov were also consulted to help figure out the dates of the films. Some films may have been released under different names, making it difficult to determine the year.
I really love these very early films. So sad most of them are lost, even if this is partly understandable: the film used takes place to store (and that did not happen on computers as today) and can burn quite easily/ quickly. It is also quite fragile. But nevertheless I am sure we could have saved many more.
Oh I know, I could stand to see a few (hundred) more…!
Ok, A Jersey Skeeter has just made it onto my list of most-wanted films. 🙂 What a fascinating variety of things there were! Nice article!
Thought you might enjoy it, Donnie! 🙂
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