The emergence of motion-picture projection was likewise embraced enthusiastically in the second half of the 1890s. By then, inventors in America and Europe had developed ways of projecting moving pictures onto screens and commercial exhibitions soon followed. The early films were without sound, of course, and showings often were supplemented by lectures and musical accompaniment.68 “It is not a novelty of the hour,” the Washington Post declared on New Year’s Day 1897, when motion pictures of the French-made cinématographe were first shown in the U.S. capital. “It brings all the world with it, and shows person and things exactly the same as they are in nature. It leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination, save sound and color.”69


These “wonderful moving pictures”70 were shown where space allowed—in storefronts, vaudeville houses, libraries, department stores, and recital halls. The films usually were no longer than a minute in length, and their topics were quite varied. Although plots were usually absent, the content of early cinema has been likened to a sort of “a visual newspaper,”71 chronicling snippets of American life. For example, Biograph showings in Washington in February 1897 included “a superb view of the Allegheny Mountains, with the Pennsylvania Limited winding its way around the curves at full speed and size; bathing in the surf at Atlantic City; callisthenic drills of United States soldiers, boys building snow men, and others.”72 President-elect McKinley strolling the lawns of his home in Ohio was the subject of a popular “view,” as motion picture segments were then called.73 McKinley’s inauguration in March 1897 was the first in American history captured on film.


Another popular early film showed the Empire State express train pounding toward the screen at sixty miles an hour. “It creates the most intense excitement,” the Washington Post said of the footage of the Empire State express. “It seems to be simply miraculous how such an effect can be secured.”74 By the close of what historian Charles Musser has called cinema’s “novelty year” of 1896–97, most Americans had had an “opportunity to see motion pictures on a screen.”75


Cinema was the new media of the 1890s and its emergence was emblematic of the broad changes afoot in the gathering and presentation of news in the late 1890s. It was a fertile, pivotal time when the outlines of modern news media were taking definition. “Telegraphy without wires”—a forerunner of radio—was the topic of a good deal of discussion in the American press in the 1890s.76 The Italian inventor Gugliemo Marconi received a patent in Britain in 1897 for sending signals without wires. Marconi demonstrated the value of the technology by transmitting minute-by-minute reports to the New York Herald about America’s Cups races in 1899. As one historian has written, “Broadcast journalism, in dots and dashes, was born” in the late 1890s.77 Transmitting photographic images by telegraph was another fin-de-siècle innovation.78


Other advances allowed half-tone photographs to be printed on newspapers presses running at full speed—a breakthrough reported in 189779 which helped transform the appearance of the daily newspaper. Newspapers in the 1890s typically sought to cram into vertical columns as many news items on their front pages as possible. Dozens of articles, many of them just a paragraph or two in length, crowded the front page. The half-tone process helped to alter that practice, and through the twentieth century, photographs and other graphic components steadily gained prominence in American newspapers. By the early twenty-first century, it was not uncommon for large American newspapers to present only a few news articles on their front pages, achieving a look dramatically different from that of the late 1890s.


The 1890s also saw “the rapid introduction of the typewriter into newspaper offices”80 in the United States. The Journalist trade publication went so far as to declare: “There is no modern invention except, perhaps, the bicycle, which has so evidently filled a long-felt want and taken its position in the economy of modern business life as the typewriter.”81



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68. Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (New York Scribner’s, 1990), 140–141.

.69 “Cinematographic at Willard Hall,” Washington Post ( 1 January 1897): 7.

70. “Cinematographic at Willard Hall,” Washington Post ( 14 January 1897): 7.

71. Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, 225.

72. “Biograph Views in National Colors,” Washington Post ( 26 February 1897): 7.

73. “Maj. McKinley at Willard Hall,” Washington Post ( 28 February 1897): 2.

74. “A Biographic Picture,” Washington Post ( 1 February 1897): 7.

75. See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, 109. Musser identified cinema’s ”novelty year” as the period from late April 1896 to May 1897.

76. See, for example, “Etherial Telegraphy,” New York Times ( 5 November 1897): 6.

77. Edward Bliss Jr., Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 2.

78. See “Telegraphed Half-Tones,” Fourth Estate ( 16 May 1895): 9.

79. “The Problem of the Hour,” Fourth Estate ( 25 February 1897): 6.

80. “The Typewriter,” Fourth Estate ( 29 July 1897): 6. The Fourth Estate account described the typewriter “as positively necessary” in most newsrooms and noted: “The rapid introduction of the typewriter into newspaper offices is largely due to the fact that it is of the most positive value in connection with the typesetting machine. The typewriter means practically perfect copy that can be readily distributed in small ‘takes.’”

81. “Bye-the-Bye,” The Journalist ( 29 May 1897): 45