The Birth of Film
Interior of the First Nickelodeon
Interior of a nickelodeon theater in Pittsburg. It was claimed to be the first nickelodeon
in the United States. The Moving Picture World, November 30, 1907.
Library of Congress.
Because of Edison’s film monopoly in New York that was protected by patents on his film equipment, fledgling studios looked for new places to film movies. Directors also sought warmer weather with longer winter days that would allow filming all year round. Florida and other sub-tropical states tried to lure the developing industry, but eventually dry, sunny southern California—and particularly the new town of Hollywood—became the locus of film production. The varied California terrain provided the illusion of vastly different locations for films. Although the administration of President Woodrow Wilson used anti-trust laws to break up Edison’s monopoly in 1917, which allowed studios to expand upon his equipment patents, almost all of the industry had already situated in the West.


The clinch, movie theatre litograph
"The clinch, movie theatre" lithograph by Mabel Dwight, 1928. Interior view of movie theater
showing members of the audience annoyed by late arrivals looking for seats during a romantic
scene in the movie.
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-00778.

Though film would eventually attract audiences from all social and economic classes, movie theaters and Nickelodeons were initially viewed as a working class phenomenon. The men of the working class—particularly immigrants—comprised a large portion of movie audiences, but their female counterparts also played a large role in popularizing film as a leisure activity. Thanks to industrialization of urban areas in late 19th and early 20th centuries, more young women than ever before left their homes to work in factories. As a result, women found themselves in possession of a disposable income for the first time and they began to spend time outside of the home, partaking in available leisure activities. This recreation involved hetero-social activities where women mixed with men in public leisure areas, such as movie theaters and Nickelodeons. Additionally, changing courtship rituals led to the popularization of dating, which only promoted the interaction of young men and women in public spaces, adding a more overt romantic component to a hetero-social leisure activity. 

This heightened mixing of the sexes offended traditional Victorian values that dictated chaperoned mixing of genders in social settings, especially among unmarried young people. As movie-going became increasingly popular among the working and middle classes, both social reformers and business owners pondered how women could be protected from the “evils” of the new American industrial city, and more specifically, the risks of attending film screenings in public. Theater owners and film producers in tandem contemplated how they could legitimize their films so that it would no longer be viewed as lowbrow and dangerous, but would instead be viewed as safe to attend. How could films be crafted so that they entertained without offending moral sensibilities? Furthermore, how could the space in which a film was displayed (i,e, movie theaters) be remade in the image of a safe or even high-class public space? To find the answers, reformers, theater owners, and producers turned to women.