What Films Did People See In The Nickelodeon Era?

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).

A typical neighborhood nickelodeon.

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. 

Heroic animals, too. See: Rescued by Rover (1905).
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“Home Folks” And The Picture Shows–Rural America During The Dawn Of Cinema

The day of the “show” came. The courts adjourned. Stores closed, the blacksmith dropped his tongs, and school “let out” at noon. The people went in droves, even the ministers and their wives…The opera house was packed, with an eager, expectant and mystified audience. The house was darkened, and suddenly a glimmering light began to play on a canvas dropped like a curtain across the stage. And the first moving scene “thrown” was one of a lazy policeman trying to hurry an old man and a crippled mare across a street. The town wag let out a whoop, everybody caught the spirit–the moving pictures were a go!

–Reminisces about an 1897 small town motion picture show,
Conestoga Magazine, 1907.

Could cinema have been invented at a more fortunate time? Once an impressive novelty viewed for a few cents a pop, it also inadvertently documented intriguing glimpses of the “old,” traditional way of life. And those glimpses were something more than the general, exciting changeover from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles, or how the cities slowly lit up with electric lights. It was the passing of using those horses to plow fields, the end of drawing water by hand from a well, the dwindling away of kerosene lamps and flickering candles. It all happened in the mere span of a generation or two.

Rural Life in the Late 19th Century | Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900  | U.S. History Primary Source Timeline | Classroom Materials at the Library  of Congress | Library of Congress
Image credit: loc.gov
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