A Silent Glimpse at the Windy City

Although filmmakers didn’t realize the documentary potential of their medium until the mid-1920s, as early as the 1890s, filmmakers and cameramen were fascinated with the idea of capturing snippets of everyday life on film. Although how much credit Thomas Edison deserves for his contributions to film is questionable, the Edison Manufacturing Company was responsible for capturing much of this everyday life in a period that we have difficulty relating to. And thanks to Edison, we have snapshots of a city near and dear to lonelybranders’ hearts, Chicago.

In 1897, Edison’s company embarked on a trip to document sightseeing spots along the Erie Railroad. As the company described their Erie Railroad Series, “The following subjects present novel and interesting views along the line of the Erie, such as do not always come within the observation of the general tourist. We are indebted to the courtesy of the Erie officials, whose kind co-operation in affording us every facility within their power has enabled us to procure these unusual and effective pictures.” One of the spots captured was the “busiest corner in Chicago” – State and Madison.

The film may not be as clear as photos of Madison from that same period (like the shot below from the Library of Congress), but  it does offer a glimpse into the point of view of Chicagoans from the turn of the century.

Chicago’s meatpacking district was a major attraction at this time, so much so that Union Stock Yards became a frequent tourist stop, even for stars like Sarah Bernhardt. Edison’s company took a brief look at the stockyards in 1897 and captured it on film.

Another essential part of the city’s history is its tie to sports and sports became a favorite subject for filmmakers. Before studios began to realize the draw of sports films, Edison’s company again captured a 1903 football game between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan.

Chicago’s silent film history involves more than documentary views of everyday life. Learn more about its silent film palaces, famous film studios and history with Charlie Chaplin with our silent film series.

Want to dive deeper into the world of silent film? Keep up with my posts over on Curtains or on Chicago Nitrate.