Information Update - Spring 1999

Online Museum Shows Life 100 Years Ago

While looking forward to the next century and preparing for the year 2000 and all the various Y2K phenomena, it is interesting and a little bit sobering to look back at how much life has changed since the last turn of the century. The Library of Congress's American Memory web site ( offers a true online museum that gives us a glimpse of what life was like back around 1900. Among the online artifacts presented by the Library of Congress is documentary film footage of life in the United States 100 years ago.
Some of this documentary footage is of "big" events. For example, there is a series of films relating to the assassination of President McKinley; another series has films of San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake. Surprisingly, though, the films that document everyday life are by far the most interesting. Among these are early scenes of New York City street life. These short films (none are more than two to three minutes) were made between 1898 and 1906 and cover a range of social and geographical settings. Among the titles are shots of skating in Central Park, an early automobile show, outdoor markets on the Lower East Side, parades, subway riders, arrivals at Ellis Island, and shots of pedestrians on the street.
At first glance, they appear to be of minimal interest. In none of them is anything vaguely "historical" taking place; it is difficult to tell why anyone would even bother to have made these films, let alone save them. But then as we watch them, we begin to be drawn in. The films do not editorialize. In the primitive conditions of early film making, they are simply shots of everyday life; no close-ups, zooms, or cuts draw our attention to anything in particular. Only occasionally the camera will pan to a different vista. But in their naive simplicity is the complexity of everyday life, and we are left on our own to sort out what is funny and what is poignant. For example, one film is of newsboys grabbing stacks of newspapers as they are tossed off a truck. A fistfight breaks out between two of the boys; amid the chaos standing alone is one small boy on crutches with an amputated leg. Another film is of pushcart sellers being told to move on by a policeman. The looks of resignation and concern on the sellers' faces are all too heartfelt. A third film simply shows pedestrians battling the elements on a windy day at the foot of the Flatiron Building. Men clutch their bowler hats; women have a much harder job of keeping their wide brimmed hats secure while at the same time preventing their ample skirts from blowing sky high. Life has undoubtedly changed in 100 years, probably for the better. (Or has it? People somehow look calmer than they do nowadays, and seem to move through the traffic with an accepting ease you don't see today.) Another series of films worth sampling at this site are early vaudeville acts. Anyone who says entertainment has degenerated over the years should catch some of these shows. There are dance acts, more notable for their energy than their grace or artistry, animal acts, gymnastics, and early burlesque striptease performances, including one of a woman undressing all the way to her underwear on a trapeze before two leering country rubes. We are reminded to never underestimate the lowness of popular taste.
Other collections on the Library of Congress site feature music collections from earlier eras, demonstrations of dances from different time periods, and photographs and pictures of American history and life. This is truly a museum that can be visited without leaving your own personal computer.
Kevin Norris
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition