The Birth of Film: Women as Audience
DC movie theater
This Washington, DC movie theater, photographed between 1900-1915, shows the
popularity that film had attained among the American public. The ornate decorations
on the outside were meant to draw people in. As evident by the photograph,
this theater is catering to a mostly male, working class crowd. Its location next
to a factory may have had something to do with it, which is why by the 1910s,
companies were cleaning up theaters and actively pursing women attendants.
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-50685.
As the United States continued to rapidly industrialize at the turn of the 20th century, a new middle-class arose in the country’s burgeoning cities. The development of regimented work schedules and growth of disposable incomes led to an increase in leisure time during which people searched for entertainment and ways to participate in America’s fledging mass consumer culture. At this time, the public sphere outside the home was considered to be the domain of men, while the home or domestic sphere was considered the domain of women.

Society viewed men as the income earners who supported the family and women as those who controlled the home’s finances in order to buy the goods the family needed to survive. With the development of leisure and consumer culture, women’s influence over the family’s finances extended to controlling disposable income. As they expanded their purchasing outside of necessary goods, vendors and businessmen sought to create profitable products and diversions, targeted at women. Department store owners successfully adapted to meet, and in some cases, dictate the new purchasing habits of women, while the development of amusement parks, such as the popular Coney Island, provided new hetero-social leisure spaces where the working and middle-class alike could find respite from the workaday world  through the controlled-fantasy and cheap thrills of amusement parks. Film-going provided another opportunity for people to socialize and spend their disposable incomes. As film’s popularity grew, it also increasingly attracted the ire of progressive social reformers. In response, theater owners and producers sought to emulate other leisure and consumer industries by turning to their female customers to legitimate their own industry.

Hippodrome posters
Movie posters from a theater in Herrin, Illinois that would have appealed to women.
Library of Congress,LC-USF33-002974-M5.
Because middle-class women controlled the domestic sphere and spent the family’s (disposable) income on consumer goods, as well as directing leisure activity, they were viewed as arbiters of taste for the middle-class family. The middle-class was an important cultural meeting ground for the lower and upper-classes. The middle-class supposedly emulated the tastes of the upper-class, and then passed these values and behaviors on to lower-class women, something social reformers viewed as positive. As a result, theater owners, film producers, and social reformers concentrated on their middle-class female customers as they sought to reshape the image of movies and theaters as tasteful, safe leisure activities. If movie-going could be linked to the “tastefulness” and “safety” of the middle-class, particularly of female movie-goers, then it could be legitimated as an art form and social activity.