yeah, but what did it look like?

The novel I’m working on has characters doing a bit of time travel. While I’m not intending to go overboard on historical detail, I do need to visualize what a historical period looked like.

I’m in luck.

When movie cameras were cutting-edge technology, people like Edison and his friends would go set up a camera somewhere and film whatever was going on.

At first people would pay to see anything: cows standing around eating crabgrass, a train going by, housewives buying fish. Eventually the audiences made it clear that as much as they enjoyed watching cows chew, if something didn’t start to actually happen in these moving pictures, they were going to keep their nickels.

Edison and his friends responded by filming very short plays. You know where that led.

However, before it all turned into fantasy, they shot a lot of footage of the real world circa 1900. For my purposes, and possibly yours if you are doing historical fiction, this old video is pure gold.

And it’s free!

Go to the American Memory web page maintained by the Library of Congress. It isn’t just documents. They also have an astonishing collection of photographs and video.

You must poke around in the collections to find the good stuff, but the clarity and detail of some of the uncompressed TIF images (they tend to be huge files, so you need a fast Internet connection to download them) are breathtaking.

Some particularly good sub-collections:

Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

American Memory Collections: Original Format: Motion Pictures

Do a search for “What Happened on Twenty-Third street” in the Motion Picture collection for an example of a very, very early movie. Most of the people in the scene are unknowing—and, I’m pretty sure, unpaid—extras, but the young woman who gets her skirt blown up fifty years before Marilyn Monroe is an actress.


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