"Filming the family": home movie systems and the domestication of spectatorship

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Author: Moya Luckett
Date: Fall 1995
Publisher: University of Texas at Austin (University of Texas Press)
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,622 words

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DURING THE, EARLY TEENS, A COMBINATION of industrial, technological, and social factors produced a brief but significant vogue for home movies. New lightweight projectors and cameras, mail-order film libraries, and developments in small format safety stocks facilitated the marketing of safe and convenient domestic movie systems to Progressive homes. Although increased mechanization had signaled the death knell for some forms of domestic leisure, it did not extinguish the desire for home recreation. As the popularity of the phonograph and the player piano attests, even the most modern families subscribed to Victorian traditions of rejuvenation, education, and uplift through domestic entertainment. While home movie systems might at first appear to be a mere extension of this trend, the very act of bringing motion pictures into the home carried more significant ideological and social consequences. Unlike phonograph recordings, motion pictures were considered an essentially public form of leisure, one whose larger social and moral influence was subject to much debate. Even the limited appearance of home movie systems in upper- and middle-class homes therefore suggested that the medium had begun to shed some of its more dangerous and unsavory connotations by the early teens. By drawing upon the links between home projectors and cameras (both their "proper" adult and children's versions) and other forms of mechanical amusements for the family, manufacturers attempted to naturalize the presence of movies in the home, marketing them as just another forms of photography or as a "visual phonograph," erasing the dangerous connotations of an unruly intruder in the parlor.

The home cinema vogue gathered initial momentum in the early teens as part of the film industry's attempt to elevate the reputation of its product. While domestic machines had been manufactured on a small scale since the invention of cinema, the launch of a series of new models (complete with extensive film libraries) compromised the first serious effort by major film companies to colonize the home. Two of the leading manufacturers, Pathe and Edison, made forays into home cinematography during 1912, although Pathe's Pathescope was not available in the United States until 1913. This development was aided by the innovation of nonflammable cellulose acetate stock, which both companies used in a nonstandard gauge: the Pathescope used 28 mm film, while the Edison Home Projecting Kinetoscope used a 22 mm stock carrying three rows of images. As Ben Singer has observed, 35 mm stock may have been avoided to prevent users substituting films made from the dangerous, flammable nitrate stock, but it is also likely that these substandard sizes were chosen to enable each manufacturer to monopolize the rental and sale of films for their machines.

Patrons would not even have to leave their home to select films, as Pathe rented films by mail for a yearly fee varying from $50 to $100 (in addition to the hefty $150 to $250 charged for the machine itself) and built up a substantial library featuring their educational, comic, and dramatic shorts. Edison established a "distribution-by-mail film exchange" where viewers could...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A90190304