Were Kinetoscopes the Instagram Reels of the 1890s?

This post was written by Talia Smith, an intern in the Library’s Informal Learning Office.

Photograph of an Edison Kinetoscope strip showing nine photos (film frames) of Sandow in various strong man poses. Includes a head-and-shoulders portrait of Thomas A. Edison above the strip.

The souvenir strip of Edison Kinetoscope Eugene [i.e. Eugen] Sandow, the modern Hercules / / taken and copyrighted by W.K.L. Dickson. Prints and Photographs Division.

If I have a moment to zone out, relax, or to be entertained, I always find myself within the depths of Instagram Reels. I scroll through videos discussing the latest books and movies, living historians following modern trends, and maybe even someone writing a musical. After an undisclosed amount of time, I close the app but my mind keeps running. I am amazed at how a series of short videos have captured the imaginations of a generation.

Watching a series of short videos for entertainment, education, and imagination is an idea as old as film itself. Thomas Edison, famed inventor, is credited with the creation of a tool known as a “kinetoscope,” that would allow audiences to watch quick “moving pictures” on a variety of topics. Users visited kinetoscope parlors, where they would find the walls lined with the Kinetoscope machines.

To watch a film, they would have to walk up to the machine, which looked like a wooden box, and insert a coin into a slot. Then, viewers would look down through a small eye-hole on the top of the box, like a telescope in science class. These videos were short in length and silent, but many audiences considered the kinetoscope to be a feat of science and technology. They did not last long, however. Like the latest app or video game, audiences wanted more as technology improved! By 1902, audiences were enjoying longer stories together in a theater, much like movie theaters today.

What’s amazing, however, is if you take some of those original short films from the 1890s and overlay them with music they’re not too dissimilar to what we watch today. Clips range from people doing the latest dances, expressing their cultural heritage, strong men showing off their muscles, explorers marveling the natural landscape, and tourists taking in the world’s cities. Like Instagram Reels, these clips could give audiences access to people, places, and technology that they may not have experienced otherwise!

You can watch these vintage videos today from the comfort of your own device. Explore some of the “Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies” collection. If you watch while also listening to the National Jukebox, you can experience what creators do when they layer video and music.  Here are some great videos from the Library of Congress’s collection to use to start your search:

A man and a woman are performing a dance together on an empty set. They are both dressed for a party, the man is in a tuxedo and the woman is in a fluffy white dress and flower corsage. This was filmed in 1897!

Strong-man Eugen Sandow, dubbed “the Modern Hercules”, was a circus performer and body builder. One might suggest that he was one of the first fitness influencers. This clip from 1894 features him showing off his muscles.

A short comedic skit from 1897 that features two men fishing on a dock. One thinks he caught a fish but instead pulls in a giant pipe! The other is so astonished that he falls into the water just as a group of people in fashionable clothes sail by.

This is a sketch from 1902, set in of the interior of a bakery.  A baker is having an issue with some uninvited rodents in his kitchen and decides to solve the problem by throwing some dough on the rodents and making art!

One Comment

  1. Alison
    March 9, 2022 at 7:58 pm

    A great example of “the more things change the more they stay the same!” From dancing, flexing, to lovely skits – humans love to entertain. What a great read!

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