Skip Navigation Links  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
Motion Picture and Television Reading Room (Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division)
  Home >> Reading Room >> Videodisc

American Memory Videodisc

The American Memory Project began in 1990 as a five-year pilot program to develop "electronic" versions of selected Library of Congress historical collections and disseminate them to a test group of libraries and institutions around the country. The project produced three videodiscs of early motion pictures from the collections of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, and the discs are available for public use in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room. The three videodiscs, THE LAST DAYS OF PRESIDENT MCKINLEY: FILMS OF WILLIAM MCKINLEY AND THE PAN-AMERICAN EXPOSITION, 1901, THE LIFE OF A CITY: EARLY FILMS OF NEW YORK FROM THE PAPER PRINT COLLECTION, 1898-1906, and EARLY FILMS OF SAN FRANCISCO, BEFORE AND AFTER THE GREAT EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE, 1896-1915, each contain from 90 to 120 minutes of silent, black and white motion pictures, primarily from the Library of Congress's Paper Print Collection.

American Memory has been assimilated into the Library of Congress's National Digital Library Project, and many of the original collections developed by American Memory (including these early films) are now accessible via the World Wide Web at the American Memory Home Page



There are twenty-six films on this videodisc. They include scenes of President William McKinley at his second inauguration, of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York where he was assassinated, and of his funeral. All of the films were produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company, a motion picture production company founded by inventor Thomas Alva Edison, in operation from 1893 to 1917.

All of the films on the videodisc are paper prints, submitted to the Library of Congress by the Edison Manufacturing Company to obtain copyright. Because no motion picture copyright law existed until 1912, early film producers who desired protection for their work sent paper contact prints of their motion pictures to the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, where they were registered for copyright as photographs. The Paper Print Collection at the Library of Congress contains over 3,000 complete motion pictures produced prior to 1912, which have been rephotographed from the original paper rolls to motion picture film. In most instances they are the only surviving copies of the film, providing a unique insight into America at the start of the twentieth century and the beginnings of the motion picture industry in America.

The Films


  • President McKinley and Escort Going to the Capitol [1901]
  • President McKinley Taking the Oath [1901]


  • Arrival of McKinley's Funeral Train at Canton, Ohio [1901]
  • Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison [1901]
  • Funeral Leaving the President's House and Church at Canton, Ohio [1901]
  • McKinley's Funeral Entering Westlawn Cemetery, Canton [1901]
  • The Martyred Presidents [1901]
  • The Mob Outside the Temple of Music at the Pan American
  • Exposition [1901]
  • President McKinley's Funeral Cortege at Buffalo, New York [1901]
  • President's McKinley's Funeral Cortege at Washington, D.C.[1901]
  • President Roosevelt at the Canton Station [1901]
  • Taking President McKinley's Body From Train at Canton, Ohio [1901]
  • Panoramic View of the President's House at Canton, Ohio [1901]


  • Circular Panorama of Electric Tower [1901]
  • Esquimaux Game of Snap-the-Whip [1901]
  • Esquimaux Leap-Frog [1901]
  • Esquimaux Village [1901]
  • Horse Parade at the Pan-American Exposition [1901]
  • Japanese Village [1901]
  • Pan-American Exposition by Night [1901]
  • Panorama of Esplanade by Night [1901]
  • Panoramic View of Electric Tower From a Balloon [1901]
  • President McKinley Reviewing the Troops at the Exposition [1901]
  • President McKinley's Speech at the Pan-American Exposition [1901]
  • Spanish Dancers at the Pan-American Exposition [1901]
  • A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition [1901]
  • Opening, Pan-American Exposition [1901]
  • Sham Battle at the Pam-American Exposition



THE LIFE OF A CITY: EARLY FILMS OF NEW YORK FROM THE PAPER PRINT COLLECTION, contains forty-five films dating from 1898 to 1906 from the Library of Congress's Paper Print Collection. Of these, twenty-five were made by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, while the remaining twenty are Edison Company productions. They are, with the exception of the "Fireboat New Yorker in Action" excerpt, complete copies of the original paper roll versions. It is important to remember that prior to 1912, film companies usually deposited unedited, pre-production versions of their films for copyright. Editing was left up to the exhibitor, who exercised considerable control over the content of his "show." This explains the occasional "mistake" which, while included here as part of the original artifact, probably would have been edited out for exhibition. It also explains why the films presented here can differ from written descriptions found in the Edison and Biograph Company film catalogs of the period.

Forty-three of these films have been designated as "actualities." Predating the newsreel, actualities are early silent films in which the camera was used to record actual events, often simply scenes of everyday life. The remaining two films, "What Happened on Twenty-third Street" a novelty, and "The Skyscrapers" a melodrama, utilize actors and contrived action. They are included on this videodisc because they both contain significant segments of actuality footage. One film, "New York Harbor Boat Patrol Capturing Pirates" shows a simulated action scene. However, it may well be footage of a real training drill so it is included here as an actuality.

The Cameramen

Thomas Edison's great pioneer cameraman and film-maker was Edwin S. Porter, creator of "The Life of an American Fireman" (1902-1903) and "The Great Train Robbery" (1903). Porter shot four of the films included in this collection. Another Edison cameraman, James B. Smith, photographed seven. Of the Biograph films, Billy Bitzer, famous for his camera work with D. W. Griffith, shot nine, and Frederick Armitage made five. Other cameramen whose films appear on the disc are Alfred Abadie, Wallace McCutcheon, Arthur Marvin, Robert Bonine, A. E. Weed, James Congdon, and Fred Dobson. In the very early years of cinema, cameramen had to be inventors, electricians, projectionists, and directors, in addition to cinematographers. Some, like Bonine had been professional still photographers. Porter and Bitzer were gifted electrical mechanics. W. K. L. Dickson, Edison's first motion picture expert and eventual rival as a founding partner of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, was both a still photographer and an brilliant engineer.

The Actuality Film

The earliest popular venues for motion pictures were nickelodeons - peep show parlors where machines played short film loops, or films on flip cards called mutoscopes, for individual viewers on demand. By the turn of the century, somewhat longer films were being exhibited in vaudeville and burlesque theaters, sharing the bill with a variety of "entertainments," which often included live dramas, singers, and comedians. This change in venue coincides with a gradual ascension over the next several years of the fiction film, which would replace the actuality as the dominant form. The popularity of actuality films peaked around 1903, then began to decline. In 1903, the Edison and Biograph companies, combined, registered three-hundred-and-fifty- one actuality films for copyright protection (twenty-four of the forty-five films in this collection were copyrighted that year). By 1908 that number had dropped to two.(1) By 1911, movie theaters had proliferated, spreading out from the cities to small-town America. Directors such as D.W. Griffith and Edwin S. Porter were making tremendously popular dramatic movies, and the actuality film had all but disappeared from the American motion picture scene.

These films of New York City are a good representative sample of the actuality genre. Included are subjects that were popular not only in the peep show parlors of the 1890's, but much earlier, in nineteenth century postcards, slides and magic lantern shows: panoramic views, civic events, parades, new buildings, new inventions, policemen and firemen in action, risque' novelties, and exotic looking immigrants. Without question, early movie-makers borrowed many of their themes and conventions from nineteenth century commercial photography, and early audiences, while amazed by the moving images, were very familiar with the subject matter.

The Life of A City

In many of the New York films, there is a sense of pride, or perhaps a celebration of the city's emerging infrastructure. The best of these films convey the sense that the already sprawling city was in the midst of becomming something much more than a squalid, chaotic metropolis; there are skyscrapers going up - the tallest in the world, a great suspension bridge being opened - the largest in the world, and a brand new subway system - the longest in the world. We see a proud police force marching in front of a large crowd, orderly columns of street sweepers parading in clean white suits, and the most powerful fireboat in the world blasting jets of water from all of its nozzels simultaneously.

Notable among the New York actualities is a recurring theme of garbage disposal methods and equipment, showing that the city government had developed the administrative ability to provide basic services on a scale never before attempted anywhere. Grace M. Mayer, in ONCE UPON A CITY points out this warning to visitors of New York City made in 1842 by Charles Dickens in his AMERICAN NOTES: "Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select party of half a dozen gentlemen hogs have just now turned the corner. . . . They are the city scavengers, these pigs."(2)

The herds of pigs were in fact the first New York street cleaners, and while there was some progress, little headway was made against the filth of the city until Colonel George E. Waring and his army of "White Wings" came on the scene. In 1900 Jacob Riis observed in A TEN YEARS' WAR: "It was Colonel Waring's broom that first let light into the slum. That which had come to be considered an impossible task he did by the simple formula of 'putting a man instead of a voter behind every broom.' The streets that had been dirty were swept. The ash barrels which had befouled the sidewalks disappeared. . . The trucks [more than 60,000 strong] that obstructed the children's only playground, the street, went with the dirt. . . . His broom saved more lives in the crowded tenements than a squad of doctors. It did more: it swept the cobwebs out of our civic brain and conscience, and set up a standard of a citizen's duty which . . . will be ours until we have dragged other things than our pavements out of the mud."(3) Little wonder then that the "White Wings" paraded proudly in April of 1903, and that there was an Edison cameraman there to film them.



2. Grace M. Mayer, ONCE UPON A CITY (New York: MacMillan, 1958), 472.

3. Ibid., 474.

Technical Note

The movies on this disc are video transfers of new 35 mm film copies that were made by sequentially photographing each frame of the original paper print rolls onto 35 mm motion picture film. The one-hour-per-side playing time was achieved by copying the films to video at thirty frames-per-second (the playback speed of a standard CAV videodisc) and instructing the user to play the disc at one-half speed. For these early films made with hand-cranked cameras, the resulting fifteen frames-per-second playback speed is a good average.


This videodisc was produced and edited by Gene DeAnna, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, with Carl Fleischhauer and Joanne B. Freeman of the American Memory Project. Videotape mastering by James B. Winther, Recording Lab, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Engineering support by Paul Chrisman, Recording Lab, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Technical video editing by Capitol Video Communications, Inc., Washington, DC. American Memory software developed by Paul Heller, Heller Associates, Rockville, Maryland. Cataloging support by Laurie Duncan, Motion Picture Cataloger, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, and Elaine Woods, Consultant to American Memory. Thanks to Patrick Loughney of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division for his expertise on the Paper Print films. Special thanks to Charles Sachs and the staff at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City for all of their help on this project.

The Films


  • Statue of Liberty [1898]
  • Panorama Water Front and Brooklyn Bridge From East River [1903]
  • Sky Scrapers of New York City, From the North River [1903]
  • Panorama Of Blackwell's Island, N.Y. [1903]
  • Emigrants [i.e., Immigrants] Landing at Ellis Island [1903]
  • Arrival of Emigrants [i.e.Immigrants], Ellis Island [1906]
  • Departure of Peary [and the] "Roosevelt" from New York [1905]
  • Panoramic View of Brooklyn Bridge [1899]
  • Panorama From the Tower of the Brooklyn Bridge [1903]
  • New York Harbor Police Boat Patrol Capturing Pirates [1903]
  • Fireboat New Yorker in Action [1903]


  • Panorama From Times Building, New York [1905]
  • Broadway & Union Square, New York [1903]
  • Lower Broadway [1903]
  • Bargain Day, 14th Street, New York
  • New York City Ghetto Fish Market [1903]
  • Move On [1903]
  • Delivering Newspapers [1903]
  • A Street Arab [1898]
  • At the Foot of the Flatiron [1903]
  • What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City [1901]
  • Star Theatre [1902]
  • Panorama Of Flatiron Building [1903]
  • N.Y. Fire Department Returning [1903]


  • Skating on Lake, Central Park [1902]
  • Sleighing Scene [1898]


  • Beginning of a Skyscraper [1902]
  • A Perilous Proceeding [1902]
  • Excavating for a New York Foundation [1903]
  • The Skyscrapers [1906]


  • New York City Dumping Wharf [1903]
  • Sorting Refuse at Incinerating Plant, New York City [1903]
  • Panorama Of Riker's Island, N.Y. [1903]


  • Excavation for Subway [1903]
  • Pennsylvania Tunnel Excavation [1905]
  • Elevated Railroad, New York [1903]
  • Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. [1905]


  • Opening the Williamsburg Bridge [1904]
  • Opening of New East River Bridge, New York [1903]
  • Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade [1902]
  • Funeral of Hiram Cronk [1905]
  • White Wings on Review [1903]
  • New York Police Parade, June 1st, 1899
  • Parade of `Exempt' Firemen [1903]
  • Parade of Horses on Speedway [1903]
  • Automobile Parade [1900]



Of the twenty-six films on the videodisc "Early Films of San Francisco, Before and After the Earthquake & Fire, 1897-1916" twenty-four date from the period 1897-1906 and the remaining two from 1915 and 1916 respectively. The two major American film companies of the pre-Hollywood era, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, each produced ten of the films. The great Mack Sennett's famous Keystone Company produced one - MABEL AND FATTY VIEWING THE WORLD'S FAIR AT SAN FRANCISCO, CAL (1915). Additionally, there are five films acquired by the Library from private collections for which there is no production information. These are composites, pieced together from unidentified shorts. It is likely that either the Edison or Biograph companies were involved in the production of parts of at least four of them under titles which to date have not been identified. The fifth, SAN FRANCISCO'S FUTURE (1916), is an early civic propaganda film that combines original animation and segments of newsreel footage. One of the segments is identified as having come from a Hearst-Pathe newsreel, but Hearst-Pathe's involvement, if any, in the actual production of the film is unknown.

All twenty-six of the films are complete copies made from originals in the collections of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. Nineteen of them are from the Paper Print Collection, which contains more than 3,000 complete motion pictures re-photographed from rolls of paper positive prints. These paper rolls were struck from the original camera negatives and sent to the Library of Congress between 1894 and 1915 as still picture copyright deposits. Three films, SAN FRANCISCO CHINESE FUNERAL (1903), EXPLODED GAS TANKS, U.S. MINT, EMPORIUM AND SPRECKELS BLDG. (1906), and ARMY PACK TRAIN BRINGING SUPPLIES (1906), are from the George Kleine Collection. This collection of over 450 films was purchased in 1947 from the estate of the pioneer movie producer and distributor, who was one of the first moguls of the film industry. Another, TR IN SAN FRANCISCO (1903), comes from the Theodore Roosevelt Association Film Collection, transferred to the Library of Congress from the National Park Service in the 1960s. These three great collections consist of thousands of unique films dating back to the very beginnings of the motion picture industry. In most instances they represent the only sources for these films, and together they constitute what may be the world's largest collection of films from the first two decades of American cinema (1895-1915).

Early San Francisco

The great Chicago fire of 1871 and the 1906 earthquake and fire of San Francisco link the histories of both places and render them unique among other great American cities. Large conflagrations were not uncommon in the cities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, quite the contrary. But the sheer level of destruction resulting from these two disasters was extraordinary, exceeding even that of the southern cities razed during the Civil War. That comparison further pales since the Civil War pre-dated the phenomenal growth of American cities that would mark the latter half of the century. By contrast, 1906 San Francisco was already a booming metropolis (as was Chicago in 1871 - albeit one built of wood), having undergone a tremendously prosperous post-Civil War period of growth and development.

Another difference arises because the destruction in the South during the Civil War was relatively prolonged, eventually even expected and inevitable. Unlike the San Francisco and Chicago disasters, we can't look back to a single, terrible moment, precise and unexpected, when the old city is doomed to rubble and ash and a new era of reconstruction forced upon a population that had only the day before gone about it's business in typical fashion. Americans can be thankful that since 1906 no other major city has endured a catastrophe that so starkly and thoroughly divided its history into eras of "before" and "after."

About the Films

On this videodisc, the before and after are separated on the two sides. Side "A" of the videodisc is made up of seventeen films which depict San Francisco and environs before the 1906 disaster, while side "B" contains seven films of the earthquake and fire. In addition, there is a 1915 travelogue by Keystone starring Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle that shows scenes of the rebuilt city and a tour of the Panama Pacific Exposition, and a 1916 propaganda film warning San Franciscans of the dangers of the isolationist and radical labor movements.

The earthquake scenes, while spectacular, are essentially reportorial. But the early movies photographed with no knowledge of the approaching calamity, in addition to being rare, have a special significance and poignancy. On one level they document how the buildings, streets, and people looked. The detailed notes provided include this information (along with some fascinating speculation) and reveal just how much can be discerned by a meticulous and knowledgeable viewer. On another level these hazy, grainy images bring to life a time and place even further removed from us than the ninety or so years would suggest, a time and place buried under a layer of ash, soot, and crumbled brick.

Just looking at the subjects of the films can be revealing, though most are typical of the actuality genre. Filmed in 1905 and obviously re-titled after the disaster, A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET BEFORE THE FIRE showcases downtown San Francisco along the great boulevard. To emphasize this (and no doubt to add to the visual excitement of the scene) the producers had the same few automobiles circle the cable car-mounted camera as it proceeded toward the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street. ARREST IN CHINATOWN (1897) was filmed on Stout's Alley (now Ross Alley), called "Street of the Gambler's" by Chinatown photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) in his well known 1896 photograph (p. 179). Using hyperbole to make exotic foreigners seem sinister and mysterious was standard practice, and while we don't know how this film was promoted by the Edison Company, one can imagine a turn-of-the-century "moving picture" exhibitor accompanying this film with a chilling tale of tong "hatchet men," opium dens, and white slavery.

The five films relating to Theodore Roosevelt's 1903 visit were filmed by Herbert Miles for the Biograph Company. Well known for making fight films and actualities of Alaska during the gold rush, the Miles Brothers (Herbert and Harry) were also pioneers in the development of motion picture distribution practices. The Roosevelt films not only document the presidential visit, they also show the great western metropolis in all its splendor, and indeed, we can marvel at how immaculate the city looks. There is no mistaking these scenes for New York City in 1903!

One of the films, A TRIP TO BERKELEY (1906), was actually taken the month following the earthquake and fire, by Biograph cameraman O.M. Gove. The idyllic views of the outskirts of Berkeley pose a startling contrast to the scenes of destruction that he filmed across the Bay during this same month. Obviously he wanted to present a picture of life "untainted" by the disaster - such a movie would probably be welcome escape for San Franciscans. In so doing he anticipates, or perhaps knowingly duplicates, the escape many San Franciscans made in the days and months following the catastrophe.

The last five films of side "A" present the natural beauty of the San Francisco region and its attraction as a place of recreation and leisure. Among the extant pre-earthquake actualities of San Francisco, this theme is repeated most often. The Paper Print Collection alone contains five films showing the scenery along the Mt. Tamalpais and Mill Valley Railroad (only one is included on this videodisc). It is the image of a prosperous, clean, unspoiled place where the good life awaits that we see in these films. As the camera slowly pans the beach in PANORAMA OF BEACH AND CLIFF HOUSE (1903) the weekend crowds, the children playing in the surf, and the two smiling young men in straw boaters project an innocent and happy assurance that life is truly good in old San Francisco.

The Films


  • Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire [Post] [1902?] [9:29]
  • Bird's-Eye View of San Francisco, Cal., From a Balloon [1902] [2:44]


  • San Francisco Chinese Funeral [Kleine] [1903] [1:50]
  • Scene in Chinatown [1903] [1:06]
  • Arrest in Chinatown, San Francisco, Cal. [1897] [0:48]


  • Troops Embarking at San Francisco [1898] [0:52]
  • Launch of Japanese Man-of-War "Chitosa" [i.e. "Chitose"] [1898] [0:52]


  • Over Route of Roosevelt Parade in an Automobile [1903] [1:45]
  • Market Street Before Parade [1903] [3:24]
  • The President's Carriage [1903] [1:37]
  • TR in San Francisco, 1903 [Roosevelt] [2:26]
  • Panorama, Union Square, San Francisco [1903] [3:11]


  • A Trip to Berkeley, Cal. [1906] [3:05]
  • Hotel Vendome, San Jose, Cal. [1897] [0:47]
  • Mount Tamalpais R.R., no. 1 [1898] [0:52]
  • Panoramic View of the Golden Gate [1902] [2:39]
  • Panorama Of Beach and Cliff House [1903] [1:35]


  • San Francisco Disaster [1906] [2:43]
  • San Francisco Earthquake and Fire [Adams] [1906] [13:00]
  • Exploded Gas Tanks, U.S. Mint, etc... [Kleine] [1906] [2:15]
  • Scenes in San Francisco #1 [1906] [2:14]
  • Scenes in San Francisco #2 [1906] [4:46]
  • [Unidentified Staples & Charles No. 1] [1906] [8:00]
  • Army Pack Train Bringing Supplies [Kleine] [1906] [1:46]


  • Mabel & Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco,
  • Cal.[1915] [16:55]
  • San Francisco's Future [Post] [1916] [5:41]

This videodisc was produced and edited by Gene DeAnna, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, with Carl Fleischhauer of the American Memory project.

Videotape mastering was by James B. Winther, Recording Lab, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Engineering support was by Paul Chrisman, Recording Lab, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Cataloging support was by Laurie Duncan, Motion Picture Cataloger, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Thanks to Paul Spehr and Patrick Loughney of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division for their expertise on the paper print films.

Thanks to Library of Congress employees Ricki Erway, Jonese Hodges and Jane Riefenhauser. The producers would like to especially acknowledge the outstanding work of San Francisco historian Michael D. Lampen, whose in-depth descriptions of each film vastly expanded our understanding of this collection.

Top of Page Top of Page
  Home >> Reading Room >> Videodisc
  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
  August 31, 2010
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:  
Ask a Librarian