Watch the Extremely Simple Short Films That Charmed Late-19th-Century Iowans

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
March 24 2014 12:45 PM

Watch the Extremely Simple Short Films That Charmed Late-19th-Century Iowans

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.

This reel of clips comes from a group of brief films that Iowa entrepreneur W. Frank Brinton took from town to town at the very beginning of the film era. The University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives has recently restored the movies, which sat in a basement for almost the entirety of the 20th century.  

The University of Iowa’s Tom Snee writes that Brinton purchased the film from companies like Edison Motion Pictures, the Lumiere Brothers, and Pathé, and showed them in opera houses and theatres, or in a tent in the town square. (Here’s an image [PDF] of a small-town opera house in Washington, Iowa, where Brinton had a recurring gig.) In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the documents in Brinton’s archive show, he made a good living out of this business.


The films were short, and almost devoid of narrative. The early viewing audience was impressed by the very medium of presentation, as a clip like the third one in this reel (at the 1:42 mark) suggests: It depicts a rushing river. Subjects in motion, like an amusement park ride or a street scene, provided proof of film’s ability to capture movement. As part of the show, Brinton arranged for an orchestral or piano live “soundtrack” for the films; sometimes, he showed them without any accompaniment at all.

The final film on the reel, of Thailand, is partially deteriorated, showing how the cellulose nitrate material of the Brinton films degraded over the years. The effect (which starts at 3:26) is ghostly, with figures and scenes disappearing and reappearing behind Rorschach blotches of decay.

Brinton, clearly a forward-thinking man, was also noted in his native Washington County for his experiments in early flight. In 1893, the local newspapers reported that he had built a craft with four 12-by-6-foot wings, run by a steam engine; in 1899, he tried and failed to fly a homemade dirigible.  



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.