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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Before and After the Great Earthquake

[Detail] A trip down Market Street before the fire [production company unknown].

1) Historical Comprehension

The films in Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1897-1916, focus on a pivotal twenty-year period in the development of modern America. A film captures a distinct "place in time," and the films in this archive can be viewed for visual clues to what life was like in large cities and their emerging suburbs in the early twentieth century. Films such as Market Street Before Parade depict different modes of transportation, dress, and activities popular at the time. A Berkeley, Cal., shot from the back of a moving streetcar, reveals a suburban area that is fairly built up by 1906, but still has enough undeveloped land for future growth.

2) Historical Analysis and Interpretation

The twenty-six films are historical artifacts that illustrate early film-making technology. By comparing early films with contemporary movies, students can view firsthand the evolution of movie-making technology and develop an appreciation for early film makers who pioneered the "modern" techniques of special effects, simulation, and animation some 100 years ago.

In the film San Francisco Disaster, special effects wizards used a small-scale model of downtown San Francisco, flames of spectacular dimensions, and heavy puffs of smoke to simulate the great disaster of 1906. In San Francisco's Future, film makers used animation to depict a bomb explosion on the streets of San Francisco during the Preparedness Day parade of July 22, 1916.

Historical analysis of films in the collection can address these questions:

  • Who produced these films and why? What technology was available to them?
  • Why would early film makers want to film everyday city scenes?
  • Do the film makers convey a "point of view" in their films?
  • Who was the audience for these films? What does the content of the films reveal about the concerns of Americans in the early 1900s?

3) Historical Research Capabilities

The films can be used as the starting point for a wide range of research projects. Students may be interested in exploring turn-of-the-century technology that transformed communication and transportation and changed American lifestyles. While Thomas Edison pioneered movies, other inventors were bringing new technology to the public: such as the Wright Brothers and the airplane, George Eastman and the Kodak camera, and Frank Sprague and the electric trolley.

Some students may prefer to learn more about the rapid growth of cities and the social, economic, and political changes that gave rise to the progressive movement, while others may find the topic of natural disasters and emergency relief more relevant and timely. Students might research these questions:

  • How and when does a community qualify for disaster relief?
  • What is the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)?
  • What steps are local governments taking to prepare for natural disasters and minimize their effects?

4) Historical Issue: Analysis and Decision Making

America continues to be a "nation of immigrants" and the issue of immigration restriction is an ongoing social dilemma. Footage on Chinatown reveals attitudes and beliefs of the period about Chinese immigrants. For example, the film San Francisco Chinese Funeral follows the funeral procession of Tom Kim Yung, a military attache to the Chinese legation, who committed suicide after being falsely arrested and brutally assaulted by a San Francisco police officer.

This film can be used to introduce a discussion on current immigration patterns and policies and related issues including illegal immigrants, bilingual education, affirmative action, and cultural diversity.

The 1915 footage on Mabel and Fatty viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco, Cal. and the 1916 civic booster San Francisco's Future can lead to a discussion on urban planning and zoning restrictions, and the quality of life in today's cities and suburbs. Students could focus on questions such as:

  • What type of city did San Franciscans hope to create after the earthquake?
  • What resources and new technologies may have influenced the rebuilding of the city?
  • Why would people want to rebuild and live in a city that was earthquake prone?