No visit to Hotbed, the exhibition currently on view in New-York Historical’s Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, is complete without a stop in the “nickelodeon,” our re-creation of an early movie theater. Inside, visitors can see excerpts from the pro- and anti-suffrage films that proliferated in the early 20th century. However, you may be surprised when a black-and-white movie gives way to a psychedelic still instructing you to “Kindly Avoid Loud Talking and Profane Language.” The design looks like something from the late 1960s, but in the early years of silent cinema, images like these—projected from small hand-painted glass slides—were an integral part of the cinematic experience.
Welcoming Women: The Early Years of Nickelodeons
In the early years of cinema, up until about 1910, the average nickelodeon program consisted of three short movie reels and two or three new popular songs performed by a professional singer. Lantern slides kept audiences entertained as the projectionist changed the film reel or when a projector broke down, as they often did. Slides offered announcements, advertisements, or song lyrics so that audiences could sing along.
These slides also illustrate several ways that the early movie industry contributed to shifting public behavior and opinion about women’s roles in society. Several of the slides on display in Hotbed promote movie-going as respectable entertainment appropriate for a middle-class female clientele. As a form of popular amusement, movie-going grew out of déclassé vaudeville, and nickelodeons brought strangers together to sit side-by-side in the dark. As a result, theater owners knew that they would need to police audience behavior to convince “ladies”—and their fathers and husbands—that theaters were safe. Some slides chided men not to swear, whistle, or spit. Others spoke directly to women, asking them to remove their hats, inviting them specifically to matinee performances, and ensuring them that “ladies without escorts” were “cordially invited.”
In addition, theaters offered a range of gimmicks to attract audiences of women. In 1910, the black-owned American Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana, promised “a useful and beautiful souvenir…to each lady on opening night.” Though theater owners’ motives were profit-focused, their campaign to bring “ladies” into the cinema widened the range of options for unaccompanied women to move through public space and attend public amusements while still being seen as “respectable.”
Join the Chorus: Making Music at the Movies (and Getting Paid to Do It)
Of the many slides in the New-York Historical Society’s collection, we chose to exhibit the most eye-catching. One black slide that we did not use is now cracked, and its small pink flowers with long green stems are faded. However, its message is still clear in large white capital letters that are double underlined: “DON’T BE AFRAID TO JOIN IN THE CHORUS WITH OUR SINGER.”
“Illustrated songs” often received top billing on nickelodeon programs. They were one of the most popular acts in vaudeville theaters and were sure to draw a crowd. In vaudeville theaters, songs were sung and accompanied by men. But nickelodeons proliferated so quickly in 1907 and 1908 that theater owners filled these positions with teenage girls—plentiful in number—who were competent on the piano. According to the trade publication Moving Picture World, this was a new trend that was unique to storefront nickelodeons. Over the next 15 years, nickelodeon and neighborhood theaters created new opportunities for women to work as paid musicians.
Hiring girls to play illustrated songs in nickelodeons was a savvy marketing move. These songs attracted audiences who wanted to hear and learn the latest hits while discouraging audiences from leaving during breaks in the program. Underlying these immediate benefits was an important economic relationship between the fledgling motion picture industry and the powerful sheet music industry. By showcasing young women playing the newest popular music many times each day, managers provided sheet music companies with free advertising. Moviegoers could easily imagine themselves (or their daughters) playing these songs at home. Some patrons purchased sheet music on their way out, and then returned the next week to learn the next new hit, a benefit to both the sheet music industry and nickelodeon theater managers.
Working Girls at the Movies
During their heyday, nickelodeons actively courted children to fill theaters during slow afternoon periods and weekend matinees. The girls who worked as nickelodeon pianists likely came from among the ranks of white working-class children, who made up between 25 and 50 percent of early movie audiences. Marcus Loew, who shifted from the penny arcade to the nickelodeon business in 1905, remembered hiring “young ladies who lived near the theater” as pianists and cashiers at his first theater in a working-class New York City neighborhood. Around the country, movie-going ranked as the top leisure-time amusement for working-class girls. In 1912, 54 percent of New York public school girls reported that they attended the movies at least once each week. A 1915 study in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania found that 28 percent of girls under 16 rated the movies as their top choice of entertainment.
But girl-pianists made, rather than spent, money working in motion picture theaters. Working-class girls were tighter on cash than their brothers; girls were expected to return pay envelopes unopened to their parents, whereas boys were typically allowed to keep some pocket money for themselves. In addition, a job at the nickelodeon was a great way for a girl to learn all of the newest “hits” without having to pay the nickel admission or buy the sheet music herself. Bella Spewak, who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, recalled in her memoir that piano-playing skills were valuable social capital among girls. “Her sister gave piano lessons,” she remembered of one friend. “This fact alone would have given her caste had she been as ugly as she was remarkably pretty.” To work as a nickelodeon pianist offered young women the opportunity to display their skills beyond the walls of the parlor.
By the mid-1910s, as movies became longer and technology more advanced, the age of the lantern slide came to an end. Movies still continued to draw large audiences of women and children, however. By 1914, 15 million Americans went to the movies every day and nearly half of the audience was women. Without lantern slides, film music changed as well. Rather than playing popular songs between films, pianists and other musicians increasingly played a variety of genres of music during silent films. Over the next 10 years, hundreds of girls and women across the country who held positions as piano accompanists composed and improvised film scores and pioneered the development of early film music. Their contributions built upon the early efforts of the young women who provided entertainment to “unescorted ladies” during American cinema’s infancy.
– Sarah Litvin, Center for Women’s History
This post is part of our new series, “Women at the Center,” written and edited by the staff of the Center for Women’s History. Look for new posts every Tuesday! #womenatthecenter
Top Photo Credits: Charles A. Calehuff, “Kindly Avoid Loud Talking and Profane Language.” Lantern Slide, New-York Historical Society Library, ca. 1910.