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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > The Life of a City

[Detail] Interior N.Y. subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. 1905.

Chronological Thinking

The collection focuses on the narrow time span from 1898 to 1906. To develop chronological thinking skills, students can compare New York City of the early twentieth century with the city today. Students can compare specific aspects of city life, for example, work, buildings, transportation, or city services. Students can use other resources to create a complete picture of the turn-of-the-century New York versus modern day New York City.

Historical Comprehension Skills

Younger students can use the collection to imagine themselves in early twentieth century New York. They can review parades, watch shoppers at a market or on "Bargain Day," and see the hustle and bustle of city streets. Students can identify visual clues that indicate the films are from the past (such as clothes, transportation, and skyline).

Middle school and high school students can use the collection to develop their historical observation skills. Most of these films are rich in detail. Students can use observation skills to gather visual data about city life at the turn of the turn-of-the-century.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Students can use the films as a spring board for studying topics such as class, labor, leisure, immigration, innovations in transportation, and the changing urban landscape. Using the films and other sources, students can analyze changes in the industrial United States, and the effect those changes had on social structure.

Students might study the melodrama "The Skyscrapers of New York" to examine prejudice and stereotyping of the day. In this film, "Dago Pete" (teachers will want to discuss the ethnic slur with students) fights on the job, is fired, steals from his employer, tries to blame his foreman, deceives the foreman's family as he hides the stolen property, and is ultimately brought to justice-- all in less than 12 minutes.

Students might discuss questions such as;

  • Why do you think this melodrama was produced?
  • How does this film show prejudice? against whom?
  • What is the moral of this film?
  • What would modern day movie goers think of this film?


Historical Research Capabilities

The collection makes an excellent launch pad for research on turn-of-the-century America. Students can combine the visual data of the films with other sources of historical information such as print documents, cartoons, photographs, and newspaper accounts. Students can select a topic covered in the films, such as transportation, urbanization, immigration, or industrialization, and create a multimedia presentation of the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Older students can research the two film companies that produced these early motion pictures, The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, and the Edison Company. Then, students can use other sources to trace the history of film production in this country. Students might answer questions such as;

  • Why were the actuality films made?
  • What messages were the films intended to convey?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • Are the viewpoints presented by these films unbiased? Why or why not?

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

The films can serve as a platform from which students consider a variety of historical dilemmas.

For example, with the help of other sources, students can examine problems facing a new metropolis in the early twentieth century. Students can examine urban issues such as overcrowding, development and construction, distribution of wealth, new immigration, sanitation, transportation, and the need for police and fire protection. Students can compare how New York city handled these concerns at the turn-of-the-century, with how the city handles them today.