"Having A Baby" in 1942: One Couple's Utterly Charming Homemade Documentary

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Dec. 3 2013 2:00 PM

"Having A Baby" in 1942: One Couple's Utterly Charming Homemade Documentary

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Ten years ago, artist Ellen Lake found this film, along with many other 16mm home movies, in her grandmother Betty’s closet. Lake told me, via email, that she performed minor color correction on the original; otherwise, the video below is the same version that came out of her grandma’s archives. The films, which Lake was finally able to view on an ancient projector her husband “rigged up with an old shoe lace,” are unique documents, an intimate look at the domestic space of a WWII-era American home.

Betty Patterson’s husband Johnny was a film buff, and between 1939 and 1945 he used his 16mm camera to experiment with narrative conventions. The films, shot in color and spliced together by hand, use jump cuts and intertitles. Johnny recruited friends to act as cameraman, and he and Betty made little documentaries about their daily lives. In the six-minute film “316 Demster Street,” which is a day-in-the-life chronicle from 1939, the camera lingers on objects like the kitchen stove, the alarm clock, and the coffeepot, as a way to show the Pattersons’ routine. This gives us a peek into the stuff that made up everyday life in 1939.

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This four-minute movie, “Having a Baby,” documents the Pattersons’ joy over the news that they were due to have their daughter Prudence. The film shows their preparations leading up to the birth. The Pattersons are funny: Johnny mimes wiping sweat off his forehead as he writes big checks to the doctor; Betty’s eyes bug out as she recreates her roll out of bed when the baby’s about to be born.

Shots of a clock moving and a close-up of the two Pattersons holding hands—until, finally, they’re separated, according to the conventions of the time—represent the labor. When the baby is born, the doctor shakes Johnny’s hand with a manly grip. Betty sits up in bed, wearing an elaborate corsage. Baby Prudence drinks from a bottle.

Johnny Patterson was killed in action in 1945, in a Japanese kamikaze attack on the USS Ticonderoga. The movies were Johnny’s project; Betty never made another.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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