Part 2: Treasures from Hollywood's silent era
America has long been home to enthusiastic movie fans. Even back in the 1910s and 1920s, a period in American film history known as the "silent era," Americans poured into theaters across the country to catch the latest films starring their favorite actors and actresses. In addition to watching movies, many Americans also took steps to integrate silver-screen characters, stars, and worlds into their everyday lives, often by collecting movie- and celebrity-related merchandise. Some fans even created their own mementos of their movie-going experiences, such as scrapbooks documenting their viewing habits and preferences.
The museum boasts a robust collection of merchandise and ephemera that sheds light on the presence and power of an evolving early movie fan culture and the importance of movies to the lives of everyday Americans in the early 20th century. Below are four examples in the museum's collection.
Souvenir programs, such as these examples for silent epics Wings (1927) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), were often available at movie theaters for patrons who wished to commemorate their screening experience. Much like modern-day theatrical playbills, they often included information on the film's cast and crew, behind-the-scenes stories, and images from the film. Both the Wings program and the Ben-Hur program in our collection cost patrons 25 cents, around the cost of an average movie ticket in the mid-1920s.
Just as today we might buy a film soundtrack on CD or download a cinematic score from iTunes, silent-era film fans could sometimes purchase sheet music related to their favorite films. Sheet music, such as this example for a waltz from Four Sons (1928), a film that featured its own original music track, allowed Americans to bring their favorite movies into their homes, where they could play (often on the piano) music associated with those films for their family and friends, thereby extending the cinematic experience into their daily lives.
Similar to modern-day children and teenagers, who often decorate their rooms with posters or photographs of their favorite bands, actors, or films, a fun way for silent-era film fans to show their love for their favorite movie stars was by hanging felt star pennants on their bedroom walls. The museum's collection includes a number of such pennants, such as this one featuring actor Robert Harron. Pennants typically included the name and an image of a star, along with the name of the company or studio to which the star was contracted. Fans could receive pennants in exchange for subscriptions to film fan magazines, such as Motion Picture Magazine and Film Fun.
As promotional tie-ins, cards featuring the likenesses of movie stars were often inserted into packaging for products such as cigarettes and chocolate bars. By purchasing these products, film fans could collect cards for all their favorite stars. This insert card dating from the 1920s features a photograph of popular screen actress Colleen Moore and was included in a package of Ghirardelli's Milk Chocolate, which boasted a "Motion Picture Star in Every Package." With her short bob and success in films such as Flaming Youth (1923), Moore became known as one of the originators of the flapper look in American motion pictures.
These four examples of silent-era merchandise and ephemera found in the collection of the National Museum of American History all demonstrate how deeply embedded movies and movie culture were in the personal lives of Americans living in the early 20th century. In addition, they suggest that silent era movie fans were not so different from movie fans today—we are still enamored by the magic of the movies and the stars who grace the silver screen.
Anjuli M. Singh is the Roger G. Kennedy Memorial Scholar and project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts.