Early Cinema, Rural Spectatorship, and Immigration

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“The movies gave the newcomers, particularly, a respect for American Law and order, an understanding of civic organization, pride in citizenship and in the American commonwealth.  Movies acquainted them with current happenings at home and abroad.  Because the uncritical movie-goers ere deeply impressed by what they saw in the photographs and accepted it as the real thing, the movies were powerful and persuasive.  More vividly than any other single agency they revealed the social topography of America to the immigrant, to the poor, to the country folk.”

                            --Lewis Jacobs. The Rise of American Film 1939 p.12

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“...American cinema has been hailed as a fundamentally progressive institution, a thoroughly popular art, and a powerful Americanising agency.” 

                            --Miriam Hansen. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 67-8.

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“The era of traveling amusement shows lasted only a short time in large urban areas, as nickelodeons quickly replaced these exhibitions by 1905. Yet in small towns, itinerants not only brought the first motion pictures to local audiences but also remained an important interface between audiences and moving pictures well into the 1920s...”

"The vogue for motion pictures spread quickly across the land after their introduction in 1896, appearing everywhere from big-city theaters to small town opera houses and rural church halls.  Film projectors were portable and relatively easy to operate—without electricity, a projector’s light source could come from limelight, or even the headlights of a Model T Ford. The films themselves were mass-produced and could be easily obtained through purchase or rental. Movies found enthusiastic audiences in nearly every corner of every state and territory."

           -- Hollywood in the Neighborhood. Fuller-Seeley Kathryn ed.

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  1. Between 1895 and 1905, prior to the nickelodeon boom, films were presented mainly in vaudeville performances, traveling shows, and penny arcades. 

  2. The first exhibitions of the vitascope, biograph, and cinematograph drew cheers, but the poor quality of these early films soon dimmed the novelty and by 1900 vaudeville shows used films mainly as chasers that were calculated to clear the house for the next performance. 

  3. Itinerant film exhibitors also became active in these years, as different inventors leased the territorial rights to projectors or sold them outright to enterprising showmen. From rural New England and upstate New York to Louisiana and Alaska, numerous visitors made movies a profitable attraction in theaters and tent shows. 

Read the full article here http://classweb.gmu.edu/cwright5/202/movie.pdf

                            --“Early Cinema.” Daniel Czitrom.  Communication in History: Technology, Culture, and    Society. 4th ed. David Crowley and Paul Heyer.  Allyn & Bacon, 2002. pp. 187.

Immigration and Nebraska

The Homestead Act of 1862 was a major pull that lured immigrants westward. The promise of "free" land proved to be a real inducement to peasants who had to eke out an existence on inadequate land holdings back in Europe. One requirement of the Homestead Act was that you had to be an U.S. citizen; however, you could also qualify by declaring your intention to become a citizen. Some Midwestern areas were anxious to increase their populations and encourage immigration from Europe by publishing pamphlets and newspaper advertisements about the wonderland on the American prairies. Some states like Nebraska even created an Immigration Bureau to "sell the state" to people living in foreign nations.

...more than two-million Europeans immigrants settling on the Great Plains between 1870 and 1900. And in 1870, fully a quarter — 25 percent — of the population of Nebraska was born in a foreign country.

Food Fun Fact...

Watermelons were a delicacy for Nebraska settlers. When the watermelons were in season and ripe, they were a summer treat and a standard for the ten o'clock and three o'clock lunch. Some pioneer families even claimed to keep melons through the winter by stuffing them in haystacks. 

Cattle near Georgetown Custer County Nebraska 1903


Immigrant Communities

The idea that the frontier experience promotes individual self-reliance and enterprise and above all fosters social equality was so often expressed and illustrated in contemporary writings...The presence of immigrant groups and even the existence of a loosely defined social elite in the villages did not greatly militate against a marked degree of equality in recreational life.  The notion that the practical experience of the rank and file of humble, unlettered men is often as valuable a community asset as book learning also reflected frontier attitudes...But on the whole, the give and take in social relations, the identification of the process of settlement with progress, the marked individualism and tolerance of differences, and the optimism even in hard times suggest...frontier values with a high degree of sensitiveness.

--Merle Curti The Making of American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier County p. 139

Diverse Ethnic communities in which people shared few close bonds of family or religion could experience conflicts, however, harsh frontier conditions often brought individuals together.

Female Frontier

"...shared experiences, life-styles, responsibilities, and sensibilities that transcended geography marked the patterns of women settlers' lives.  To no small extent, they also transcended ethnic and cultural differences."


         --Linda Schelbitzki Pickle.  Contented Among Strangers: Rural German-Speaking Women and Their Families in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest.

Women were essential to survival and the success of a farm. Women could expect to:

  1. care for poultry, make butter, garden, sell eggs

  2. provision the household with the staples (meat, eggs, bread, veggies, fruit) 

  3. pay for food items such as spices, cornmeal, coffee and clothing/cloth

  4. produce children to work on the farm

  5. assume all child care responsibilities

  6. Men were responsible for field crops and large livestock

Loneliness on the Farm

  1. Historian Elizabeth Hampsten comments that the writings of midwestern women from 1880-1910 suggests that they "were lonely, so lonely that some sickened and died or went mad."

  2. Homes were widely scattered and in Nebraska, women were less likely to have sisters, mothers, or other female friends with them in their homes.

  3. Some women would engage in "neighboring" - helping, advising, consoling each other through social organizations they developed. 

            --Deborah Fink. Agrarian Women:  Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940.

Independence - Women found freedom in the demands of the American environment by

  1. traveling alone to visit neighbors

  2. learning to ride horseback

  3. acting as farm managers when their husbands were away

The Homestead Act of 1862 gave single women and female heads of households the right to 160 acres of land by residing on and improving it for five years.

German Immigration

“Linguistic and cultural integration for the vast majority of German-Americans was motivated more than anything by their determination to improve their standard of living...Numerous immigrants and their children achieved economic success, which in turn made them very proud of their environment and the social and political community in whose surroundings they had experienced their achievements. Personal success and the collective goals of an entire city or region often fused the self-worth feelings and identities of the immigrants, not with other immigrants, but with the trans-ethnic "American" community which had made "progress and equal opportunity" a political creed embraced by all hardworking and talented immigrants. Many of the successful German-Americans, like other immigrants, had little reason to identify with their past and the ethnic community they had left behind when their future belonged so obviously to the thriving supra-ethnic corporate body they had joined. Upward social and economic mobility tended to weaken ethnic ties.”

The German Americans Ethnic Experience. Rippley, LaVern and Eberhard Reichmann translators. Max Kade German American Center. http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/kade/adams/cover.html

First Person Accounts - Rural Life

Farm Wife, 1900

When America entered the twentieth century, almost half of its population lived on a farm (compared with approximately one percent in the year 2000). It was a hard life. There was little industrialization to help with the chores and no electricity to illuminate the darkness. The majority of farms were family-run, providing subsistence and hopefully an income through the sale of any surplus.

"I am not a practical woman."

The following description of farm life was written at the turn of the twentieth century by an anonymous woman who had secret aspirations to be a writer. At the time she wrote this she was in her early 30s and had been married about 14 years. 

"I have been a farmer's wife in one of the States of the Middle West for thirteen years, and everybody knows that the farmer's wife must of a necessity be a very practical woman, if she would be a successful one.

I am not a practical woman and consequently have been accounted a failure by practical friends and especially by my husband, who is wholly practical.

We are told that the mating of people of opposite natures promotes intellectuality in the offspring; but I think that happy homes are of more consequence than extreme precocity of children. However, I believe that people who are thinking of mating do not even consider whether it is to be the one or the other.

We do know that when people of opposite tastes get married there's a discordant note runs through their entire married life. It’s only a question of which one has the stronger will in determining which tastes shall predominate.

In our case my husband has the stronger will; he is innocent of book learning, is a natural hustler who believes that the only way to make an honest living lies in digging it out of the ground, so to speak, and being a farmer, he finds plenty of digging to do; 

No man can run a farm without some one to help him, and in this case I have always been called upon and expected to help do anything that a man would be expected to do; I began this when we were first married, when there were few household duties and no reasonable excuse for refusing to help.

. . . I was an apt student at school and before I was eighteen I had earned a teacher's certificate of the second grade and would gladly have remained in school a few more years, but I had, unwittingly, agreed to marry the man who is now my husband, and though I begged to be released, his will was

 so much stronger that I was unable to free myself without wounding a loving heart, and could not find it in my nature to do so.

. . . Later, when I was married, I borrowed everything I could find in the line of novels and stories, and read them by stealth still, for my husband thought it a willful waste of time to read anything and that it showed a lack of love for him if I would rather read than to talk to him when I had a few moments of leisure, and, in order to avoid giving offense and still gratify my desire, I would only read when he was not at the house, thereby greatly curtailing my already too limited reading hours.

.. . . This is a vague, general idea of how I spend my time; my work is so varied that it would be difficult, indeed, to describe a typical day's work.

Any bright morning in the latter part of May I am out of bed at four o'clock; next, after I have dressed and combed my hair, I start a fire in the kitchen stove, and while the stove is getting hot I go to my flower garden and gather a choice, half-blown rose and a spray of bride's wreath, and arrange them in my hair, and sweep the floors and then cook breakfast.

Read the rest of her account of a typical day here: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/farmwife.htm