Inventing Entertainment: The Edison Companies showcases the work of prolific inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). Known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," Edison patented 1,093 inventions, including the phonograph, the kinetograph (a motion picture camera), and the kinetoscope (a motion picture viewer). In addition to being a renowned inventor, Edison became a prominent manufacturer and businessman by selling his inventions. This site features 341 motion pictures, 81 sound recordings, photographs, original articles, and other related materials.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
- Edison Biography
- Edison Motion Pictures: The Edison Manufacturing Co. and Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
- Edison Sound Recordings: The National Phonograph Co. and Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
- Timeline for Inventing Entertainment
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
- Alexander Graham Bell Papers, 1862-1939
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey
- Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916
- Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904
- Last Days of a President: Films of McKinley, 1901
- The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906
- Origins of American Animation
- The Spanish-American War in Pictures, 1898-1901
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection
To search for films throughout all American Memory collections, use the All Collections Search Engine. Be sure to limit your search results to “Motion Pictures.”
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
Please Note: The Alphabetical Title List on the Inventing Entertainment Home Page links to the database and search engine of the defunct American Memory collection, Early Motion Pictures. The contents of Early Motion Pictures are now available in a variety of film-related American Memory collections. To remain within the Inventing Entertainment collection, please browse for files using either the Alphabetical Title List of Edison Motion Pictures or Edison Disc Titles
The films in Inventing Entertainment document life during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries with footage of events such as the Spanish-American War, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, and the funeral of President William McKinley. Unlike contemporary feature-length films, these short pieces were often exhibited as a series within a vaudeville program. Special Presentations in the collection chronicle Thomas Edison's life and his involvement in the phonograph and motion picture industries. The presentations also provide historical context for the development of the popular twentieth-century medium of narrative films.
Please Note: The bibliographic pages of the collection's items contain links to the Early Motion Pictures Search Engine. This search function accesses films from other American Memory collections that are not otherwise available via the Inventing Entertainment collection and its search engine. For best results, please be aware of which search function you are using at all times.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was a prolific inventor and successful businessman who dramatically influenced modern life in the twentieth century. This collection's Special Presentations, magazine articles, and audio and video recordings provide information about Edison's personal life and his commercial success.
Edison earned the first of 1,093 patents in 1869 for an electric vote recorder. The Special Presentation, "The Life of Thomas Edison," explains that when politicians were reluctant to use the machine, "he decided that in the future he would not waste time inventing things that no one wanted." This emphasis on function and profit is reflected in the inventor's comments in "Edison Views the World at Seventy," (one of two 1917 interviews available in this collection), when he explains his recent work in chemistry:
For most of my life I refused to work at any problem unless its solution seemed to be capable of being put to commercial use . . . . I have always been more interested in chemistry than in physics, but I got into electricity and stuck there for a long time . . . . Oddly enough it was the war that gave me the chance I had been looking for to putter with chemicals. I mean that the cutting off of our supplies made it advantageous to find out how to manufacture [chemicals] in this country. (page 2)
- Which of Edison's inventions do you think were most important? Why?
- Why do you think that Edison was such a successful businessman?
- What does Edison's career suggest about the factors that influence invention? What is the impact of the public's reaction, the inventor's genius and interests, and the inventor's financial needs?
Another side of Edison is revealed in the 1919 recording, Let Us Not Forget. In this rare public speech, the inventor comments on the national sacrifices made during World War I, addresses the end of the conflict, and celebrates national courage: "The word, American, has a new meaning in Europe . . . We are proud of the North Americans who risked their lives for the liberty of the world."
- What contributions do you think that Edison made to his country?
- How might Edison have viewed his relationship to his country?
- Why do you think that Edison recorded the address, Let Us Not Forget?
Three years later, Edison allowed the motion picture camera to focus on its inventor in the six-part series, A Day with Thomas A. Edison. This documentary recorded the 74-year-old Edison's collaborations with his staff, conversations with industrial leaders, and supervision of the factory's production line. The majority of the film (parts 3, 4, and 5) chronicles Edison's trip to the incandescent light bulb factory and details its manufacturing process.
- Why do you think that Edison allowed cameras to document his activities in A Day with Thomas A. Edison?
- Why do you think that the film devoted so much time to the manufacturing of light bulbs?
- How do you think that the public might have perceived Edison?
- What do his public appearances (in the interviews, recording, and film) imply about Edison's status as a private businessman and a public figure?
- Do you think that there are any contemporary businessmen or inventors who rival Edison and his contribution to modern life? If so, then who? If not, then why?
The Phonograph and Motion Picture Industries
During the February 1917 interview, "Edison Views the World at Seventy," the inventor said that his favorite creation was the phonograph: "[T]he development . . . was most interesting, but it took a long time-thirty years," (page 2). The Special Presentation, "The Life of Thomas Edison" explains that the phonograph was an outgrowth of the inventor's work on the telephone and telegraph. He successfully recorded sound "with a tinfoil-coated cylinder and a diaphragm and needle" in 1877. A year later, he formed the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company.
This collection's histories of the "Edison Cylinder Phonograph" and "Edison Disc Phonograph" chronicle the machine's evolution from a business dictation system to a home entertainment luxury item. The transition in marketing the phonograph is reflected in two of the collection's films. The Stenographer's Friend (1910) presents the Edison Business Phonograph as a means to increase productivity in a modern office. The Voice of the Violin (1915) uses Edison's record shop and music laboratory as settings and explains that the new phonograph records are the result of "four years of research work in acoustics and chemistry and over two million dollars in experiments alone."
- How does the film, The Stenographer's Friend depict the concerns of a modern office?
- How do The Stenographer's Friend and The Voice of the Violin demonstrate the capabilities of a phonograph without the benefit of a soundtrack? How do the characters respond to the phonograph's performance?
- How does the representation of Edison's music laboratory in The Voice of the Violin compare to the manufacturing scenes of incandescent light bulbs in A Day With Thomas Edison (1922)?
Edison guaranteed the quality of his machines. In "Edison Views the World at Seventy," he declared: "[T]here is not much more to be done with the [improvement of the] phonograph," (page 2). The motion picture industry, however, was a different story.
Edison invented the Kinetograph, a single camera recording a series of images, in 1891. The Special Presentation, "History of Edison Motion Pictures," chronicles the evolution of the technology over subsequent decades as studios developed motion picture projectors and produced a variety of films for a growing audience. The filmography, "Chronological Title List of Edison Motion Pictures," supplements this history with examples from the first three decades of the motion picture industry.
- How did competition between various phonograph and motion picture companies influence the development of these technologies?
- What types of improvements were made in both industries during the first decades of the twentieth century?
- How were these technologies marketed to consumers?
On February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded and sank in Cuba's Havana harbor killing 260 sailors onboard. While the cause of the explosion was unclear, many people in the United States sought to hold Spain accountable for the incident. A search on the term, battleship Maine, yields footage of the aftermath in the films, Burial of the 'Maine' Victims and Wreck of the Battleship "Maine," which was shot in Havana harbor two months after the blast.
International relations between the United States and Spain were already tense due to a debate over the island of Cuba and its independence from Spanish colonial rule. In April 1898, the United States proclaimed Cuba free from Spanish rule and declared war on Spain. A search on the phrase, Spanish-American War produces documentary footage and reenactments of the four-month conflict. (Additional footage and information on the war is available in the collection, The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures and in the exhibit, "The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War.")
Documentaries from the war include footage of the first U.S. soldiers arriving on Cuban soil in U.S. Troops Landing at Daiquirí, Cuba and of Cuban Refugees Waiting for Rations. January 1899 footage of a triumphant U.S. Army parading through the streets of Havana in Troops at Evacuation of Havana and in General Lee's Procession is also available.
The risk was far too great for cameramen to film actual battles in the Spanish-American War but studios capitalized on the public's interest by filming reenactments of the conflicts. National Guard troops recreated several scenes in New Jersey, including an attack on a Spanish scouting party in Cuban Ambush and Spanish soldiers executing Cuban rebels in Shooting Captured Insurgents.
- How do you think that audiences might have responded to the documentary footage of the battleship Maine and of U.S. troops in Cuba?
- When describing the documentary, Cuban Refugees Waiting for Rations, the Edison catalog explains, "One expects to see just such men as these, after the centuries of Spanish oppression and tyranny. As they come forward, their walk, even, is listless and lifeless." How do the documentaries (and the Edison catalog summaries) depict the Cubans?
- How are the Cubans portrayed in the reenactments?
- Are there any differences in the representation of Cubans in the two formats? How do you think that U.S. audiences might have responded to these depictions?
- What aspects of war are featured in documentaries and reenactments? What do you think are the limitations of each format?
- Do you think that these films contributed to the U.S. war effort? If so, how?
The Paris Exposition of 1900 and the Pan-American Exposition of 1901
International expositions or "World's Fairs" were popular pastimes in the United States and Europe from the middle of the nineteenth century to the start of World War I. These venues entertained millions while celebrating culture, commerce, and technology.
A search on the term, Paris Exposition, produces footage from the Paris Exposition of 1900--the third such fair held in the city, which boasted approximately 40 million visitors between April and November. Films from this collection include, Panorama from the Moving Boardwalk, the Panorama of Eiffel Tower (a "temporary building" held over from the 1889 Exposition), the Palace of Electricity, and the Scene in the Swiss Village where children in native costumes performed for the camera.
A year later, the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, drew approximately 8 million people between May and November 1901. The official start of the Pan-American Exposition occurred on May 20, 1901 with Vice President Theodore Roosevelt leading a procession across the fairgrounds in Opening, Pan-American Exposition.
A search on the term, Pan American, yields additional footage of the fair's attractions, including the three-part series, A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition. This film guides viewers on a tour through the canals bordering the perimeter of the Exposition and features a number of temporary buildings constructed for the fair. (A description of these scenes is available in the summary information on the film's bibliography page.) Meanwhile, films such as Pan-American Exposition by Night feature closer looks at the Temple of Music and the Electric Tower, a massive construction boasting over 35,000 light bulbs.
Other pieces in the collection feature performances from the fair's foreign villages, including Spanish Dancers, acrobats in the Japanese Village, and dogsleds running across the Esquimaux Village. The final day of the Exposition featured a Sham Battle between six Native American tribes and the U. S. infantry in the fair's stadium. The two-part film of this reenactment features cavalry charges, hand-to-hand combat, and a lot of gunplay.
- What types of architectural styles and technological innovations were represented in the buildings at these expositions?
- How do you think that fair visitors responded to the entertainment in the foreign villages such as the Spanish Dancers and the Sham Battle?
- How did the temporary buildings and performances at both fairs emphasize the themes of commerce and culture?
- What do you think that these fairs suggest about popular entertainment in the United States at the turn of the century?
- What do you think that events such as the Sham Battle suggest about popular entertainment in the United States at the turn of the century?
- Are there any contemporary events or locations in the United States that offer a similar entertainment experience to a World's Fair?
The Assassination of President William McKinley
The Pan-American Exposition became part of the tragic history of the United States on September 6, 1901, when anarchist Leon Czolgosz approached President William McKinley in the Temple of Music and fired two shots into the president's chest and abdomen. The film, The Mob Outside the Temple of Music . . . documents the crowd's attempt to reach the assassin moments after the shooting. President McKinley died eight days later due to complications from his gunshot wounds. He was the third U.S. president to be assassinated since the Civil War.
A search on the terms, McKinley and exposition, yield images of some of the president's last public appearances reviewing U.S. infantry troops and delivering his final speech on the day before the shooting. Meanwhile, a search on McKinley and funeral produces films of the president's funeral procession in Canton, including President Roosevelt at the Canton Station and McKinley's Funeral Entering Westlawn Cemetery. This series also includes The Martyred Presidents, a tribute to Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley that the Edison catalog promoted as "most valuable as an ending to the series of McKinley funeral pictures."
In October 1901, Leon Czolgosz was convicted of the McKinley's assassination, sentenced to death, and executed. Execution of Czolgosz features an image of the execution site, Auburn Prison, on the morning of the event, as well as a reenactment of the assassin's death in the electric chair based on details from an eyewitness account.
- How do you think that audiences might have responded to the films documenting McKinley's last presidential actions and his funeral?
- Why do you think that the Edison company offered The Martyred Presidents as an ending to the funeral series? What does this film suggests about President McKinley's place in U.S. history?
- How do you think that audiences might have responded to the Execution of Czolgosz?
- Do you think that audiences viewed documentary films of current events and reenactments in the same way? What expectations might audiences have had of each format?
- What value does the footage of the exterior of the Auburn Prison on the morning of Czolgosz's execution add to the piece featuring the reenactment of the execution?
- Is there a difference in filming a live event and recreating it for a camera at a later date? If so, what?
- How are reenactments used in contemporary film and television? Are all contemporary reenactments clearly identified as reenactments? Do you think that there are any potential benefits to an audience failing to recognize footage as a reenactment?
- Do you think that there are any potential dangers to an audience failing to recognize a reenactment?
- Do you think that there are implications to using reenactments within a documentary-style production?
- Do you think that reenactments should be clearly identified if they are used in news programs?
The film and audio recordings collected in Inventing Entertainment provide opportunities to chronicle the evolution of the motion picture industry and its influence on popular entertainment. Footage of vaudeville performers provides a catalyst to assess the demise of theatrical film during the early-twentieth century. Films of the Western genre can prompt a discussion on how certain styles transcend the media after entering the nation's cultural vocabulary. Additional films can be analyzed to discuss the merits of public executions and to research historic firsts in technology and popular entertainment.
Chronological Thinking Skills
An August 1910 article on Thomas Edison, "Who's Who in the Film Game," describes the motion picture camera as "the absolute foundation of an amusement business that encircles the world, giving employment to thousands and numbering its daily devotees by hundreds and hundreds of thousands." The Special Presentations, "The Timeline for Inventing Entertainment," and "The Life of Thomas Edison" provide an opportunity to chronicle the early history of the motion picture industry and the relationship between technology and the development of narrative forms.
The filmography, "Chronological Title List of Edison Motion Pictures," features examples of motion pictures from the first three decades of the industry's history, beginning with the Dickson Greeting (1891). Non-fiction "actualities" of vaudeville performers, documentaries, and comic sketches featuring trick photography gradually gave way to longer narratives such as an adaptation of the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk and original tales such as the famous Western, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
The motion picture industry of the early twentieth century provided an opportunity to create these new types of narratives but many studios based projects on the proven success of their competitors. The Special Presentation, "The History of Edison Motion Pictures," explains that competition often resulted in different studios remaking the same film. For example, How a French Nobleman Got a Wife . . . (1904) was a remake of the Biograph Studios film, Personal (1904), but Edison's picture became the most successful film of the year.
- How did competition and technological innovations in the motion picture industry influence the narratives of the films and establish certain genres?
- Why do you think that Edison's studio copied other studios' work?
- Do you think that copying other people's stories is a concern in the contemporary film industry?
Historical Comprehension: Vaudeville and Motion Pictures
Vaudeville was a popular stage entertainment in the United States during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Actors, singers, athletes, comedians, magicians, dancers, and other performers entertained middle-class audiences in theaters across the country. This collection features footage of vaudeville entertainers such as modern-day Hercules, Eugene Sandow, dancers such as the Leander Sisters and Carmencita, Venezuelan rope and slack wire walker Juan Caicedo, and the acrobatic comic duo, Robetta and Doretto. A search on the term, vaudeville, results in audio recordings of comic songs such as Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus and a variety of vaudeville films.
Film projectors entered vaudeville theaters in 1896 and they eventually became the biggest attraction on the bill. While the comic film, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show exaggerates people's reaction to the realism of the silver screen, it also demonstrates how theaters featured a variety of short films. Motion pictures such as The Enchanted Drawing and The Magician employ trick photography as a modern magic show, almost impossible to duplicate as a live stage performance. Meanwhile, documentaries such as the series of films depicting the aftermath of a cyclone in Galveston, Texas, including, Panorama of Galveston Power House and the Panoramic View of Tremont Hotel, Galveston displayed both the devastation of the area and the impressive ability of the motion picture camera to provide news images across the country.
A year later, footage of President William McKinley's funeral circulated the theaters in a similar series. (Additional themes are listed in the Special Presentation, "Overview of Edison Motion Pictures by Genre.")
While vaudeville temporarily flourished by incorporating motion pictures in their programs, the film industry eventually took center stage as many vaudeville entertainers leapt to the silver screen and theaters were converted to accommodate movies. Additional films and other vaudeville materials are available in the American Memory collection, American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920.
- What styles of humor are used in comic songs such as Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus?
- Why do you think that so many vaudeville performers were featured in early films?
- What do you think were the potential benefits for audiences and motion picture distributors in featuring a vaudeville performance on film?
- How did vaudeville and other forms of popular entertainment influence the development of motion pictures?
- Why do you think that motion pictures eventually became more popular than vaudeville?
- Are certain elements of vaudeville still apparent in contemporary motion pictures?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The American West
During the nineteenth century, popular entertainment such as dime novels and stage plays established the Western genre while blurring the line between fact and fiction. For example, William Cody was a soldier, hunter, and Indian scout whose exploits were celebrated and exaggerated in Ned Buntline's Buffalo Bill dime novels. In 1872, Cody first portrayed Buffalo Bill on stage. He successfully adopted the public persona for future performances and later wrote his own dime novels and an autobiography about frontier life. He also established "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" in 1883.
This troupe of cowboys, Native Americans, and other performers dramatized frontier life for audiences across the United States and Europe with skill-demonstrations and reenactments of buffalo hunts, armed conflicts, and traditional dances. A search on the term, wild west, yields films such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade, Native American performances of the Buffalo Dance and the Sioux Ghost Dance and skill-demonstrations such as a cowboy riding a bucking bronco and sharpshooter Annie Oakley firing at targets in Edison's New Jersey studio. Additional images of Buffalo Bill's Wild West and other photographs from the era are available in the American Memory collection, History of the American West: 1860-1920
- How do the performances of Buffalo Bill's troupe depict life in the West?
- How do you think that audiences might have responded to the performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West?
- How did Buffalo Bill's Wild West compare to other popular stage entertainments of the era such as vaudeville?
- How did the skills and feats of performers such as Annie Oakley and Native American dancers compare to their counterparts on the vaudeville stage?
- How did the performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West compare to performers featured in the foreign village of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901?
- What does the employment of real Native Americans and cowboys contribute to these shows?
- After viewing some of the images in History of the American West: 1860-1920, do you think that it was possible that Buffalo Bill's performance troupe influenced life in the frontier?
- How does the contemporary appeal of the Western genre in books, film, and television compare to the appeal of the Buffalo Bill's Wild West?
The traditions of the Western genre continued in early films such as The Great Train Robbery (1903), which Edison's motion picture catalog describes as the "faithful duplication of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West." In one of the most famous scenes from the movie, an outlaw fires his gun directly at the camera. Edison's catalog explains that the image can be used at the projectionist's discretion at either the beginning or the end of the film for dramatic effect.
- What elements of the West was this film trying to dramatize? Do you think that this is an accurate depiction of frontier life?
- How does this film compare to contemporary Westerns?
- What do you think are the enduring elements of the Western genre?
- Why do you think that Westerns have been popular for more than a century?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Historical Reenactments of Executions
This collection contains battle scenes from the Boer War of South Africa, the Spanish-American War, and the United States campaign in the Philippines. These historical reenactments provided an opportunity to capitalize on an audience's interest in news events without jeopardizing the safety of a cameraman and his equipment.
While films such as Capture of Boer Battery by British, Cuban Ambush, and Capture of Trenches at Candaba feature smoke effects and the occasional wounded soldier, none of the participants appear to die. A search on the term, execution, however, produces three historical reenactments in which death is the main attraction.
The film, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), features the beheading of the sixteenth-century monarch as a "realistic reproduction of an historic scene" that greatly benefits from trick photography. In the midst of the Spanish-American War, Shooting Captured Insurgents (1898), depicted Cuban rebels struck down in a firing squad with the "flash of rifles and drifting smoke [making] a very striking picture." Three years later, eyewitness accounts were used to recreate the electrocution of President William McKinley's assassin in the Execution of [Leon] Czolgosz, with panorama of Auburn Prison.
- What do you think was the purpose of each reenactment of an execution? How do you think that audiences might have responded to these reenactments?
- Do you think that there is a different intention in depicting a Spanish firing squad executing Cuban rebels and a U.S. prison executing a presidential assassin?
- Do you think that it is necessary to have some knowledge about the events surrounding an execution to appreciate the significance of each film? Do you think that the interest of such films reside in their historical significance or in the spectacle of death itself?
- What does the reenactment of an execution in a motion picture provide that might be lacking in portrayals through other media such as photography or prose?
- What are the detriments to presenting an execution in a motion picture?
- Do you think that there is a difference between viewing a reenactment of an execution and viewing such a reenactment as part of a larger work of fiction?
- What might these films imply about the role of capital punishment in early twentieth-century society?
- Do you think that people would watch a reenactment of a contemporary execution?
- Do you think that people would watch a live execution?
Historical Research Capabilities
The essays in this collection describing the history of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph and Edison Motion Pictures provide an opportunity to further investigate the origins of both inventions. The collection also affords the opportunity to examine early experimental films such as the Dickson Greeting (1891), the Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894) that combined a kinetoscope and phonograph, and the Panorama of Esplanade by Night (1901), which is alleged to be the first film taken at night by incandescent light in the United States.
In addition to technological firsts, some films in this collection provide scenes of other historic firsts in the United States, including the first annual Automobile Parade (1899) in downtown Manhattan, President McKinley taking the Oath to become the first U.S. president of the twentieth century, and Coney Island's establishment as the first amusement park.
Coney Island was a popular recreation area in the late-nineteenth century. It featured three race tracks, the nation's first roller coaster in 1884, a Ferris Wheel a decade later, and the first enclosed amusement park in 1895. Subsequent attractions followed and Coney Island developed into an historic entertainment area. A search on the term, Coney Island, yields films from the park's first decade. Shooting the Chutes (1896) features the park's water slides, Racing at Sheepshead Bay (1897) presents one of the area's three racetracks, and Rube and Mandy at Coney Island, (1903) features the rides found in Steeplechase Park and Luna Park. (Luna Park was the creation of the duo of Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy who created the "Trip to the Moon" ride at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.)
The materials available in Inventing Entertainment provide an opportunity to develop non-fiction and creative writing skills. Magazine articles and biographies can be assessed for a discussion of a writer's goals and technique and then used as an example in composing original articles based on the resources in this collection. Comic sketches from audio recordings of vaudeville performers can serve as the basis for creative writing projects. Other audio and video recordings in the collection can provide a catalyst for projects involving critical assessments of music and film, the development of newscasts, and the study of parody.
Biography and Magazine Writing
The 1910 Nickelodeon article, "Who's Who in the Film Game," uses Thomas Edison's biography to discuss the inventor's influence on the motion picture industry. (This article can be compared to the more comprehensive biography available in the Special Presentation, "The Life of Thomas Edison.")
- What is the main topic of the article, "Who's Who in the Film Game"?
- Who do you think is the author's intended audience?
- Where does the biographical information appear in this article?
- How does the biographical information relate to the rest of the piece?
Imagine that you are a newspaper reporter in the early twentieth century with an assignment to write an article about Thomas Edison and the music industry (e.g., "Who's Who in the Phonograph Business"). The articles in this collection, "Edison Views the World at Seventy" and "New Aspects of the Art of Music" feature interviews with the inventor regarding the state of the phonograph and popular music. Select a few quotes as the basis for your piece and use the information in the Edison biography and timeline to supply background information about the inventor.
Creative Writing: Newscasts
A search on the term, actuality, produces documentary footage of events such as Cuban Volunteers Embarking for the Spanish-American War and a Life Rescue at Long Branch, in which a drowning person is pulled to shore. Also available is a documentation of the Paris Exposition's technological innovations as featured on the Panorama from the Moving Boardwalk.
Films such as these can be used to create television newscast (performed live or on film) modeled after contemporary news programs. Search specific terms or browse the Subject Index for ideas about what to include in a variety of segments, including "World News" (Spanish-American War), "National News" (McKinley funeral), "Sports" (sports), "Weather" (Galveston cyclone), and "Entertainment" (vaudeville). Write a script introducing each piece, featuring transitions between reports, and including banter between the anchor and correspondents at the end of each piece.
A search on the term, humor, yields audio recordings of comedy sketches in a variety of situations. For example, The Band Festival at Plum Center (1918) features citizens around a bandstand, while A Police Court Scene (1919) presents a judge assigning comic ruling such as giving a felon twelve months for stealing a calendar. The Shop Girl (1925), depicts the travails of a department store clerk fielding questions from customers.
Customer: Where can I get a silver tea pot?
Shop Girl: Do you want it solid?
Customer: No, I want to put tea in it.
- Do these sketches tell a specific story or present a string of jokes?
- How do these situations and characters generate the humor of each sketch?
- What are the similarities in the situations and characters of these comic sketches? What are the differences between the scenarios in each sketch?
- How are comic elements such as puns, exaggerations, and misunderstandings used in these sketches?
- Choose a situation in which a character is required to interact with many people. Develop a comic dialogue by brainstorming about the various characters that the protagonist might have to encounter.
Songwriters often comment on contemporary issues within their society by adopting a fictional persona who has a vested interest in the debate surrounding the issue. For example, the 1916 nativist song Don't Bite the Hand That Feeds You imagines a dream sequence in which Uncle Sam is distraught about immigrants living in the United States who "come to him friendless and starving when from tyrant's oppression they fled / but now they just abuse and revile him." Uncle Sam finally responds in anger at these ungrateful citizens with the chorus:
If you don't like your Uncle Sammy then go back to your land o'er the sea
To the land from where you came, whatever be it's name but don't be ungrateful to me.
If you don't like the stars in Old Glory, if you don't like the Red, White and Blue,
Then don't act like the cur in the story, Don't bite the hand that's feeding you.
A search on the term, prohibition, produces two songs critical of the temperance movement. In the comedy sketch preceding the musical number in Dinnie Donohue, on Prohibition (1921), the Irish character criticizes the ban on alcohol with lines such as, "When we were young they gave us a bottle to keep us quiet and now when we need a bottle, they take it away from us." Meanwhile, Save a Little Dram for Me (1922) presents a comic song about men drinking in church when the preacher demands his share with comments such as, "Why drinkin' gin ain't against my teachin'" and "I've shared your joy and I've shared your sin / and believe me, brothers, I'm gonna share your gin."
- Why do you think that songwriters chose to adopt the personas of characters such as Uncle Sam, an Irishman, and a preacher to voice opinions on issues such as immigration and prohibition?
- What types of poetic elements (rhyme scheme, meter, imagery, etc.) do songwriters use to convey their message?
- How is dialect used in the songs about prohibition?
- Why do you think that a dialect was not used in the song discussing immigration?
- How do songwriters use stereotypes about these characters to convey their arguments?
- Choose a contemporary issue and write a poem from the perspective of a character who might be directly impacted by the debate surrounding that issue.
Parody and Satire
The Great Train Robbery (1903) was a wildly popular commercial and critical success about outlaws in the American West. Two years after its release, the parody, The Little Train Robbery (1905), featured children holding up a miniature train and stealing candy before being brought to justice. A search on the term, parody, yields satires such as European Rest Cure (1904), which depicts the misadventures at a European spa and Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King (1901), a lampoon of Theodore Roosevelt featuring a man hunting a black cat while a photographer and press agent document his every move.
- How do these films exaggerate the nature of their subject matter?
- What is the relationship between a parody and the original work upon which it is based? What is the purpose of a parody? What makes a parody funny?
- Do you think that it is necessary to be familiar with the original subject matter to appreciate a parody?
- How do you think that audiences might have responded to these parodies?
- What is the purpose of a satire? What makes it funny? What kind of message does it convey and how?
- How is a satire different from a parody? What are the similarities between the two? What types of comic techniques appear in each?
- Choose a popular contemporary film and develop a parody.
Comedic Genre: Mischievous Children
In 1902, cartoonist Richard Outcault brought Buster Brown and his dog Tige to readers of newspaper comics pages. This trouble-making duo moved to the medium of film in 1904 with the "Buster Brown Series", in which Tige's athletic ability allows him to overcome almost any obstacle that the two face during their misadventures. (A few months after the films, the Brown Shoe Company purchased the rights to the characters for its children's shoes and dispatched midgets wearing Buster Brown costumes across the country to peddle their wares.)
Buster Brown was one of the most recognizable comic characters of its era, but he also fit well within the comic tradition of mischievous children. Many of the collection's films feature "bad" kids wreaking havoc on the adult world. Titles available in this collection include Little Mischief, Maude's Naughty Little Brother (1900), and Love in a Hammock (1901). In the latter film, two boys upset a happy couple's time together under an oak tree.
- What types of pranks do these children play on their elders?
- How do the adults become susceptible to these pranks?
- How do the adults respond to the children?
- What do these sketches suggest about the behavior of adults and children and their relationships with each other?
- How do these films use physical comedy in their gags?
- How do these films compare to the works comprising the literary tradition of mischievous children, such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
- Are there any contemporary films, comic strips, or cartoons in which this tradition continues?
- Write a short story or comic strip imitating these films.
Music and Film Criticism
When Thomas Edison was describing popular music in the May 1917 Edison Diamond Points article, "New Aspects on the Art of Music," he explained: "People like or dislike what they are told to. There is very little fresh and original thought upon the subject." Sample some of the recordings available in the "Alphabetical List of Edison Disc Titles."
- Are there certain melodies or stylistic themes that appear in a number of the recordings?
- Do you agree or disagree with Edison's claim that people "like or dislike what they are told to"?
- Do you think that contemporary audiences are told what to like?
Professional critics are one group of people who seek to influence popular tastes in the arts. Select a song, comedy sketch, or fictional film (available with a search on the term, drama) and write a critique of the work while keeping in mind the technological limitations of the era.
- How does the work make you feel?
- What do you think is the goal of the piece?
- Do you think the material successfully achieves this goal? Why or why not?
- What did you like most about the work? What did you like least?
- How does the work compare to contemporary efforts in the same genre?
- Would you recommend the piece to anyone you knew?
- Would you limit your recommendation to a select few? If so, who?