Rare Thomas Edison films capture Chicago’s early days

Rare Thomas Edison films capture Chicago’s early days
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Rare Thomas Edison films capture Chicago’s early days
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Rare Thomas Edison films capture Chicago’s early days

A handful of films housed at the Library of Congress provide a rare and fascinating glimpse of Chicago at the cusp of modernity, busy and teeming with life.

Originally filmed in 1897, they are among history’s earliest motion pictures.

Shot from the city’s busiest corner, one shows hundreds of shoppers and pedestrians swarming the street, competing for space amidst cable cars and traffic of all kinds:

These films were made by the Edison Manufacturing Co., with consummate inventor Thomas Edison at the helm. He gave the world indoor lighting with the modern light bulb and the first recorded sounds with the phonograph.

But he was also a key pioneer of early filmmaking and film technology: His shop developed the kinetograph and the kinetoscope – early camera and viewing devices – which Edison said would “do for the eye what the phonograph has done for the ear.” (The machines were to have debuted at the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, but problems with Eastman Kodak’s early film stock and an overly-ambitious manufacturing schedule prevented that from happening.)

Edison produced many films but was primarily “in the business of producing machines,” according to Paul Spehr, former assistant chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress. If Edison wanted people to buy his viewing machines, he needed to give them something to watch.

And watch they did.

“Edison had a cache for sheer genius that’s hard to capture,” explains Pat Loughney, chief of the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. “People were flocking to see them because they were the wonder of the age.”

Some of the most popular early films were commissioned by railroad and steam ship companies. Savvy executives gave cameramen free tickets and private cars in exchange for what amounted to free PR. These films from Chicago were part of a collection shot along the route of the Erie Railroad, which connected New York and New Jersey to Chicago starting in 1832.

Edison sent cameramen not just to Chicago, but to Alaska and China. His cameramen captured shots of San Francisco after the Great Earthquake in 1906 and made some of the first films shot in Japan.

Audiences loved these early travelogues. They were hungry for images of exotic, far-away places. “And if you’re on the east coast and you’ve never been west of the Catskills, Chicago is a foreign place,” notes Loughney.

The films also held up a mirror to the city. “There was a desire among people in Chicago to see images of Chicago,” said Loughney.

Chicagoans would have seen these films in “amusement parlors,” where they could move from kinetoscope to kinetoscope and view the films one by one. There were also some early theaters where they could watch a film as part of an audience, thanks to new projection devices like Edison’s vitagraph.

Two of the films highlight Chicago’s place as “hog butcher to the world,” and capture sheep and long-horn cattle cascading through their stockyard pens.

The clips here are just fractions of the original footage. Loughney estimated that “what remains is only one or two percent” of the whole. Before film was something that could be copyrighted, filmmakers printed long strips of photographic paper with still frames, and sent that into the Library of Congress. These films have been reconstructed from those paper snippets; the originals have been lost to the dustbin of history.