Edwin S. Porter – The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

The revolution in sound recording is obviously the main focus of this site – but as far as a standard history of popular culture is concerned, the 1900s are better-remembered for the beginnings of the film industry – not yet started in Hollywood, but already beginning to differentiate this century from the last. Up to this point the natural home for cinema is France (and possibly Britain) – but 1903 sees the emergence of the first real auteur of American cinema, Edwin S. Porter.

The Great Train Robbery is nearly as much a bold leap forward as A Trip To The Moon, and its influence if anything may be greater. Watching it you get for the first time a sense of what American film-making is going to become. Porter didn’t exactly invent composite editing, or cross cutting, or location shooting, but his use of them is the first iteration of the grammar of film-making we still have today.

Here is The Great Train Robbery – certainly worth a look.

And here is a documentary about Porter, apparently made by a long defunct website.

The Films of Mitchell & Kenyon


Here’s a wonderful thing. In 1994 a stack of negatives was found in a cellar by workmen demolishing a shop. The prints turned out to be the largest surviving collection of actuality films anywhere in the world, and their restoration is almost certainly the best window on to life in Edwardian England.

Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon made “Local Films For Local People” from 1899 to 1907. This meant traveling to different towns, filming real-life scenes, of people in the streets, sports matches and public events, then screening the films the same evening. Members of the public could come and see themselves projected onto the big screen.

There are two DVD collections of the films I’ve acquired. The first has full films, unedited, and is utterly fascinating, but the second, the DVD release of a BBC series, is perhaps better, offering in-depth historical analysis and even tracking down descendants of the people featured.

Research for this project is never a chore, but this is one of those things that I suspect I’d be watching even if I wasn’t researching the era.

Here is the first part of the BBC series – the other two parts can also be found on Youtube.

Theodore Roosevelt


Theodore Roosevelt towers over the Progressive Era like nobody else – he rose to fame at its inception, became president at its height and died as it was spluttering out. Viewed from the 21st century he seems like a mass of contradictions – a strongman intellectual, a populist warmonger who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Reading about him, I am never sure whether to find him admirable or a monster – certainly he did plenty of good, but his decisive leadership also led the country into bloody colonial wars. In our mixes we will (eventually) hear his surprisingly reedy, intellectual voice, and hear songs about him, or the ‘teddy bears’ which bear his name.

The Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts is a good introduction to Teddy. Naturally the whole thing isn’t up on Youtube, but this clip is a nice starter.

The full DVD box set can be found here.

This from The Washington Post’s ‘Presidential’ podcast about how he created the modern concept of the presidency is also a good listen.

The Assassination of President McKinley

American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shoots U.S. President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley dies 8 days later.

President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6th, 1901, during a visit to the Pan-American Exposition at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later of gangrene caused by the gunshot wounds. He was the third American president to have been assassinated in forty years – an era in which the USA had turned away from the serious work of building the nation after the civil war to the excesses of the gilded age, the reversal of civil rights gains, and the nation’s first colonial wars. His successor would handle things in a very different fashion, though one no less fond of war.

Here is an episode of the Washington Post’s ‘Presidential’ podcast about McKinley

This is a section from the Ken Burns ‘The Roosevelts’ series about McKinley’s Assassination

And here is some original footage from his funeral

Goodbye Victorians Hello Edwardians

victoria funeral gif

Trawling through the years there’s always a lot of talk of the ending of one era and the beginning of another. Much of it is the sort of bluster engaged in to promote an area of study. In 1901 with the start of the 20th century, the death of Victoria (and later McKinley) and the ascension of Edward VII (and later Theodore Roosevelt) the drawing of a line does become much easier.

Queen Victoria died 22 days into the 20th Century at the age of 81, with Edward VII, and her eldest grandson, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, at her side. Her funeral was one of the largest ever gatherings of European royalty, and one of the first public events to have extensive film recording surviving.

This interview with Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Alice includes her talking about the funeral from four minutes in.

The Boxer Rebellion


The turmoil that would break into the horrors of the first half of the 20th century was already well underway around the world. In China, a nation due to spend most of those fifty years engaged in civil war, the crisis was already here. Neglected by the Qing Dynasty, humiliated by defeat to western nations in 19th century wars, and almost broken by the terms of their peace treaty with Japan, the Middle Kingdom was ready for one of the bloody uprisings that throw the country into chaos and bring about the end of a dynasty. This time, though, the anger was redirected towards the foreign forces and foreign culture seen to be taking over the country. The Yihequan (known as “Boxers” in English) were a secret martial arts society who believed their techniques made them invulnerable to bullets. 100,000 strong, they stormed across Northern China, killing foreigners and Chinese Christians until reaching Beijing, they received the support of the Empress Dowager and set about besieging the Legation Quarter where the foreign embassies were. In a unique show of unity, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary joined together to invade Beijing, lift the siege, and set up reparations so massive that their repercussions are still being felt today.

For a history of the Boxer Rebellion, I would suggest the relevant episode of In Our Time, or this one from the China History Podcast, or this one from Stuff You Missed In History Class. This History Channel documentary is ok, as far as History Channel documentaries go:


Finally, the piece of Boxer Rebellion related material I’ve spent the most time with is Robert Coltman’s memoir ‘Beleaguered in Peking’ – an inside account of the siege of the Legations, an entertaining read and a fascinating insight into the mind of an American doctor caught up in historical events.

The Second Boer War


At the closing of the Victorian age, the Boer War saw the British discover they were not invincible after all – and though they ultimately won, the consequences would set the stage for South Africa’s history up until the present day. This documentary series goes into the story well, and includes plenty about the British use of concentration camps.

1898 and the Spanish-American War



1898 is quite a memorable year for one big reason; it marks the start and end of the Spanish-American war, the first adventure of the USA’s imperial phase, and the making of one of its most zeitgeist-setting leaders, Theodore Roosevelt. On the plus side this means the year is easier to research, but on the downside, the focus is usually blinkered.

1898: The Birth of the American Century by David Traxel

When I’m scouting around for research sources through my strange little narrow frame, the most obvious thing to look at is “books about years.” This is the first one I’ve encountered so far (there are many, many more to come once we get into the 20th century) and is not the best, or the worst introduction to the genre. While supposedly about the events of 1898, the book is mostly (say 80%) about the Spanish-American war, from an entirely American perspective, and even the context setting introduction and conclusion are only basically lists of events in the USA. I guess this is fair enough, the war was nicely contained by the year, though the repercussions in Cuba and The Philippines would continue for decades after, and expecting American historians to take an international perspective is obviously wishful thinking. The war is described well-enough, taking a pretty even-handed approach to the rights and wrongs of it, but the analysis is a bit limited, events are covered in a reasonable depth, with no extra time taken on analysing deeper issues. Not sure I would recommend it, but I’m not giving it to Oxfam.

In the same sort of quality, but preferable due to being consumable in two hours, here’s a fairly dry PBS documentary with a host of military historians in front of bookshelves and hoary voice actors playing McKinley, Roosevelt and the rest.

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