Category: Research

Making Movies in 1910 New York

Vitagraph Studios Brooklyn, New York

 

I’ve been taking a deep dive into the world of early film-making in New York. It’s the backdrop for a large part of my work in progress, and something I really had no idea about before.

I didn’t know, for instance, that D.W. Griffith’s first films were made in the New York area, that his studio was based near 14th street.

I also didn’t know that most of the movies were made outdoors for the sake of the light, that filming indoors required resources most small studios didn’t have. That meant that acting in moving pictures was a seasonal job, and actors had to do other things—perform on stage in clubs and theaters, for instance—in order to make a livable income.

Florence Turner
Florence Turner, the Vitagraph Girl

The fact that actors weren’t identified by name until 1910 came as a surprise to me, too. In the end, the studios couldn’t avoid the cult of celebrity, which they knew would lead to having to pay well-known actors much more. Florence Turner, The Vitagraph Girl, wasn’t credited by name until 1910, despite having started with the studio several years earlier. Her salary was a princely $22 a week. She was contracted to be an actress and a seamstress at first. Of course, the men were paid more then as now.

Most interesting of all to me was discovering that one of the early pioneers of narrative filmmaking was a woman: Alice Guy Blaché, who worked for the Gaumont company in France, and then came to New York and started her own studio. My story doesn’t neatly work into her life, but I’m making her presence felt as best I can.

Biggest frustrations: Trying to find out technical information about how the movie cameras worked, the editing process, how films were duplicated, aside from the obvious, and what the inside of a nickelodeon looked like.

But I’ll keep digging as I write.

 

1910: Newspapers, Nickelodeons, and Nickel Weeklies

thumbnailOne of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a historical novel is getting glimpses of how ordinary people led their lives in times gone by. Standard biographies of famous people, traditional accounts of history—these rarely include such information, so if you want to discover more, you sometimes have to get inventive with your research techniques.

For my current WIP, I needed to know what people knew about what was going on in their city and the world, how they got their information, what they read on a daily basis and what they read for entertainment. Because I’m working in the early 20th century, information like this is a great deal easier to find out than it would be in, say, the 17th century—partly because of the wealth of searchable newspaper archives online, and plenty of period photographs.

Here’s a little of what I discovered:

New York had several well-established daily papers by 1910. Some of the more famous include The New York Tribune (founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Horace Greeley), The New York World, The New York Sun, The New York Times, and The New York Journal (Hearst’s paper). All of them published morning and evening YellowKideditions they sold for a penny, making them affordable to all but the poorest residents. The World and the Journal engaged in a circulation war, writing sensationalist headlines and even sometimes fictionalizing their news reports, in the late 19th century. This was the origin of what was called Yellow Journalism.

Investigative journalism was also born during this period At the time, politicians and others who found themselves the target of this practice called it muckraking. A particularly famous example is the investigation into Standard Oil’s practices under John D. Rockefeller by the progressive woman journalist, Ida Tarbell.

Ida Tarbell
Ida Tarbell

When it came to more entertaining options, New Yorkers enjoyed the Nickelodeon. These were store-front moving picture theaters that cost a nickel to enter, and where viewers could watch a series of ten-minute or so films in a wide variety of genres—comedy, drama, documentary, and more. Their heyday in New York was from 1905 to 1907, but they remained very popular in the poorer neighborhoods for several more years.
New Yorkers also bought Nickel Weeklies,the precursors of the Dime Novel, in the thousands. These heavily-illustrated publications served up serialized fiction and adventure stories to many different age groups. Readers came back week after week to get the next installment of their favorite tales. Their colorful—almost lurid covers are now highly collectible.

Secret_Service_COLORAs with all research, knowing what to leave out is just as important as what you put in. My characters won’t sample all these forms of news and entertainment on the page. But I’ll know all these things are a part of their lives off the page.

The Ladies’ Mile

6thavenueearlyI’ve been dipping in and out of this work-in-progress and have lately gotten back into it. I did a lot of research to start off with, but in my experience, the research never stops throughout the writing process.

The novel is about two young women in 1910 New York, one an Irish immigrant who suffers some reversals and ends up getting into terrible danger, the other a member of the wealthy class who’s just come home from four years of college, and is dealing with the competing demands of her mother’s ambition to marry her well, and her own desire to make a difference in the world. Their two stories intersect in the shadowy underworld of white slavery.

The writing is going well now, but I have started over from the beginning three times now. I began in the first person, then realized that there are so many complicated sides to what was happening that multiple third would serve me better. I also changed the timing of the beginning, and many of the events.

All this meant that yesterday, I found myself researching the department stores in New York in 1910. It was already a commercially thriving city by that time, with big department stores like Macy’s, B. Altman, and Lord & Taylor opening their flagship stores in what was known as The Ladies’ Mile.

The area, now a historic district, stretches from around 15th street up to 24th (extending to 34th when Macy’s store there opened), east to what is now Park Avenue South and west to the other side of Sixth Avenue.

200px-ONeillBuilding-NYC-LadiesMileMapThanks to the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission, most of the buildings are still there, although many have been repurposed into smaller retailers and offices.

Of course, the most iconic of them all is the Flatiron Building, but Gimbel’s and B. Altman had pretty impressive buildings themselves.

These establishments employed armies of shop girls and porters, and supplied the wealthy and the growing middle class with ready-to-wear clothes, fashion accessories, and household goods.

If you’ve been watching The Paradise or Mr. Selfridge, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what retail was like around the turn of the 20th century. Here’s a slideshow with some vintage images to enjoy!