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The Life of a City: Early Films of New York City


A young man tosses an apple in the air as he chats with a vendor. Pushcarts are piled high with wares. Children in blouses and pantaloons rush into the busy street. Women subtly hitch their skirts up, just enough to stay modest while keeping dirt off their hems. An elevated train bustling in the background. A cartoonish policeman swings his baton around, trying to keep the peace.

In the last century, film has become an American institution. From being seen as just a novelty at its inception, movies are now considered high art, or at the very least respectable form of pop culture (okay, and some of them are still very much just a novelty). Laying the groundwork for motion pictures to become what is it today, were artists, inventors, and engineers, perfecting the art all over the world.

Two production companies, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. and American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, were based in New York City at the turn of the century. A collection of their films dated from 1898 to 1906 are available to everyone on the Library of Congress online archive, from the Paper Print Collection. These films were called “actualities” or what we know of today as documentary films. Typically, they’re only a couple minutes long, but they are filled with a wealth of fascinating information. They might have been used as newsreel footage that became a popular way to spread the news after the advent of moving pictures, or later used as stock footage as movies because longer and more narrative-driven. We at the Tenement Museum love to recreate life on the Lower East Side as it used to be, and these actualities offer us a real two-minute window into the everyday.

We’re familiar with scenes like the one above, recreated in movies, retold in stories, captured in grainy photographs. Described on a Tenement Museum tour. City life at the turn of the century. This “actuality” from the Thomas A. Edison, Inc., dated October 27, 1903, presents a sight likely familiar to all the residents of 97 Orchard – crowded streets, overflowing pushcarts run by Jewish and Italian vendors, and policemen attempting to keep order. It’s nice to know, even a hundred years ago, New Yorkers were not bothering to obey traffic laws.

Along with the scene above, which is just an average day in the lives of New Yorkers at the time, they also produced films that hold more significant value, even if they might not have realized it at the time. Actualities that this one featured below, titled “Emigrants [i.e. immigrants] landing at Ellis Island” provide real historical context for the journey to becoming Americans, to be witnessed by people over a hundred years later.

Some of the films were also produced by the Biograph Company. Biograph, in operation from 1895 to 1916, switched their focus in 1903 from actualities to narrative-driven works. Even so, in 1906, they were also capturing the moments of immigrants landing in America, like the one shown below. Much like the Edison film three years earlier, the people are ladened with heavy bags, luggage, and children – all struggling to stand upright with the weight of everything they value. In both moving pictures, the newly arrived immigrants are lining up, waiting for instructions, crowding together, looking for the right places to go.

Perhaps the fact that there is no recorded sound is what makes these people seem both stressful and hopeful. We know from history that these captured moments are the first time they are stepping foot on American grounds, after travelling for weeks in an overwhelming crowded and dirty ship. They’re stretching their legs for the first time in a long time, breathing in fresh American air. Yes, only the first part of their journey is finished – the hard part, building a life for themselves, is just beginning, and nothing is guaranteed even after arriving. But even with the confusion and doubt, they still made it here.

The earliest films couldn’t tell a story, not the way we’re used to now. Watching these two-minute movies is literally the way to watch history unfold. Not only are the subjects illuminating a long-gone time, but the motivations of the men behind the camera is fascinating to contemplate. Could they ever imagine they were developing techniques and equipment that would one day lead to a billion dollar film industry? Did they foresee the historical treasure they were capturing as they filmed their surroundings, did they know even back then that their era was worth preserving for future generations? And what’s more, were they aware of how beautiful, how awe-inspiring their everyday was, deserving of being seen for years to come?