Going to the show


Postcard of the Bijou, Wilmington, N.C., 1914, from Going to the Show

Though there are some who would deny it, cinema history involves the history of cinemas. The study of a medium that ignores the social form in which it has been consumed is a blinkered one, yet sadly so much of film studies exists in just such state of denial. Happily there has been a concerted effort by a dedicated band of academics in recent years to investigate cinema-going as an integral part of cinema history. Inspired in the first place by Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie in the United States (1992), the school uses socio-historial tools to analyse the experience of movie-going through patterns of audience types (age, gender, race, class), venue locations, social mobility, transportation links, purchasing power, leisure time and competing attractions. The significant output from such investigations has become the database which maps and documents particular territories. We’ve already had Cinema Context for the Netherlands and the London Project for the early film business in London. Now we have Going to the Show for North Carolina, 1896-1930.

This is a fabulous resource. It is going to make many other places wish that they had something much the same. Going to the Show “documents and illuminates the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures (1896) to the end of the silent film era (circa 1930)”. At its heart are 750 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of forty-five towns and cities in North Carolina between 1896 and 1922 that locate film venues within general urban life. All of these are mapped to a database (a welcome feature for the specialist is that not only are all the database fields explained but the database relationship diagram is given) to which have been added photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, architectural drawings, advertisements and more. It totals over 1,300 film venues across two hundred communities.


Film venues marked on Sanborn fire insurance map for Burlington, N.C.

As said, Going to the Show is based around fire insurance maps, and gives this explanation of their provenance and use:

From 1867 to 1977, the Sanborn® Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced large-scale (usually 50 feet to the inch) color maps of commercial and industrial districts of some 12,000 towns and cities in North America to assist fire insurance companies in setting rates and terms. Each set of maps represented each built structure in those districts, its use, dimensions, height, building material, and other relevant features (fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example). The intervals between new map editions for a given town or city in the early decades of the twentieth century varied according to the pace and scale of urban growth — from a few years to more than five years. In all, Sanborn® produced 50,000 editions comprising some 700,000 individual map pages. Because almost all early movie theaters were repurposed from an existing retail space located in the commercial heart of a town or city, they appear on thousands of Sanborn® map pages after 1906. Larger, purpose-built theaters were included in later Sanborn® maps.

Going to the Show takes these precise records of film venues and marries them to Google Maps, with all the familiar tools of zoom-in, zoom-out, scan across and marking of venues with hyperlinks to further information. But it is the range of extra information that makes Going to the Show so powerful. Map searches can be refined by year, venues and period in which the venue was active, while you can select whether to view modern or historical map with an opacity slider, and bring in current street names. Each venue is marked with a Ticket icon, which links you to additional information.


New Bern, N.C. shown through modern Google map and Sanborn fire insurance map, pinpointng the Dixie Theatre 1913-1918 catering for African American audiences only

A major aspect of the research has been the racial division of film venues. Keen to demonstrate how race conditioned the experience of movie-going for all North Carolinians – white, African American and American Indian – the resource extends beyond the silent era to document every known African American film venue in North Carolina operational between 1908 and 1963.

What distinguishes Going to the Show is its attention to database searching and presentation. The faceted browse option shows how you can refine searches by item type (Architectural Drawing, City Directory, Commentary, Illustration, Newspaper, Organization, Overlay Map, Periodical, Person, Photograph, Postcard, Typescript, Venue),
location (by City, County or Region), venue name, date (allowing for searching by decade), and keyword or tag (including such useful terms as admission price, boxing films, children, fire, influenza, penny arcade, racial policy, religious objection and separate entrance). The tag ‘notable’ leads you to some of the choice items, such as this 1897 press notice saying that owing to the popularity of the Edison Projectoscope at the Wilmington Opera House that the dress circle will be reserved for “colored citizens”:


Wilmington Star, 20 March 1897

And there’s more. Robert C. Allen, James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies, History, and Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the presiding genius behind Going to the Show, has produced an eye-catching timeline for Wilmington, N.C., chronicling and commenting upon twenty-six venues from 1897 to the end of racial segregation in 1954. Business papers from this period are a rarity, and another very welcome feature is the Joyland Theatre Ledger, the manager’s ledger from 28 September 1910, to 14 January 1911, including expenses and ticket receipts.


Going to the Show is handsomely and sensibly presented. It merits detailed study. It has been produced as one of a number of University of North Carolina digital resources under the title Documenting the South. It ought to be the springboard for much further research, not simply within film/cinema studies, but as part of that general social history of which film history needs to be a part. This is the point – that so much of film history speaks only to those who know about film. It constricts itself to a narrow field by not speaking the language that is natural to other disciplines. I’ve mentioned at a couple of conferences what for me is the shocking case of G.R. Searle’s A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (2005), part of the New Oxford History of England. This 951-page magisterial history builds on new research in the areas of social, cultural, ecnomic and political history, yet among all those 951 pages just one throwaway paragraph is devoted to cinema. The bibliographic essay notes the extensive work done in music hall and sport history, but has nothing on cinema at all. Film historians – and in this case particularly British film historians – simply aren’t writing in a language than anyone else recognises, or cares about. The situation is better in America, as the work of Gomery, Allen, Garth Jowett and others indicates, but much much more remains to be done. Moreover, such moviegoing studies as there are often tend to get subsumed within concerns about spectatorship – handy enough in itself, but still making the audience subservient to the film. For discussion on this issues, read Richard Maltby’s essay for Screening the Past, ‘How Can Cinema History Matter More?‘, the title of which rather sums it up. To read about some of the other projects worldwide which are investigating cinema-going, see the HOMER website (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition, and Reception).

To understand the phenomenon of film, of course we need to appreciate it as an art form, but we must ask those basic questions how, where and when motion pictures were consumed, and to see their world as integral to a wider social world. Datasets and databases don’t answer everything by themselves, but they provide the foundations for thinking about the right answers. Going to the Show points the way.


Robert C. Allen would welcome any feedback from Bioscope readers. You can email him at rallen [at] email.unc.edu.

12 responses

  1. Excellent – thanks for sharing this. Just shows what riches exist when you can identify an area and employ sources specific to that area, in your case Leeds City Council accounts. And I admire your empirical approach generally – a really interesting blog.

  2. Nick:
    I’d very much like to see what you’ve done in Leeds, but the link in your comment doesn’t seem to work for me.


  3. Pingback: Research into film

  4. Indeed. Bobby Allen was recently at the BL looking at Goad maps to compare them with the Sanborn maps. I didn’t use Goad maps when I was researching London cinemas, because I hadn’t heard of them then, but I had enough data to deal with as it was from other sources. There’s always the question whether film venues in the early cinema period would necessarily have turned up on fire insurance maps, as they were sometimes fly-by-night operations on short leases that didn’t stay around long enough to be counted by the authorities. What’s needed probably is a test exercise which takes a territory and a time period and compares the different sources, seeing which is the fullest and which picks up on information that others leave out.

  5. The council records are probably the best source. Under the 1909 Cinematograph Act, premises used for the exhibition of motion pictures have to be licensed by the council responsible. As this involves paying money to the council this counts as revenue, which must be included in the accounts. This is true for both fixed and temporary shows. The awarding of licenses has to be made by the Watch committee (responsible for public safety), and the name of the theatre, its location, and the applicant should appear in the minutes of this committee. Here, the bureaucratic nature of local government works for the historian

    NB: this might not work for Liverpool, which had slightly different requirements imposed by the city’s act of corporation.

    It’s worth noting than in the case of Leeds, most of the requirements imposed by the Watch committee related to fire prevention measures (panic bolts, fire escape, fire extinguishers, etc).

  6. It depends on your city. When researching London (1906-1914) I found the London County Council records were only useful so far because they kept to licensed venues, inevitably. But even after the passing of the Cinematograph Act there were many unlicensed venues – maybe two or three times as many as licensed early on. My major source was the Kinematograph Year Book, supplemented by other cinema and theatre yearbooks, plus some police records and occasional L.C.C. reports on unlicensed venues. For the most comprehensive record, it’s hard to avoid investigating multiple sources. All the sources used are cited under the individual cinema records at http://londonfilm.bbk.ac.uk. I wouldn’t trust to Goad records alone (not that I’ve seen them yet) and wonder whether they would add anything new, or simply confirm data from other sources.

  7. I forgot to mention another useful source is the Board of Trade, Companies Registration Office: Files of Dissolved Companies at the National Archives. This lists all the companies that have gone bust in the UK, although to find film companies you have to think a bit laterally: search for ‘picture hall,’ ‘picture house’ ‘cinematograph,’ etc. This works for all film companies and not just exhibitors (although they make up the bulk). Some of the earliest film companies in the UK I’ve come across so far is Bonn’s Kinematograph, Ltd., who went bust in 1896; and the British Cinemtographe Company, Ltd., and the Cinematograph Picture Advertising Syndicate, Ltd., which were dissolved in 1897.

  8. A quick follow up on Goad fire insurance plans, based on my very limited experience with them (one day!) and conversations with map archivists at the BL.

    Like the Sanborn maps, Goad maps are urban ground plans, showing every built structure (and not just those with fire hazards) in a given town’s CBD, as well as commercial sites. Fire insurance maps were a service to the commercial (rather than residential) insurance industry, so that mapping of residential neighborhoods is not as systematic or comprehensive.

    the goad maps that I saw are very similar to sanborns in format and in the kind of information they convey. But there are some differences. Goad maps seem to have been published by subscription: Goad approached the major insurance underwriters in the uk and got them to share the costs of surveying and mapping up front. The resultant map sets were never sold. They were “rented,” meaning that Goad provided the subscribing companies–again, mostly insurance underwriters–with a base map of a particular town. This original map set was regularly updated with correction decals. The subscriber would send the maps back to Goad and it would apply the decals and send them back. If the revisions were extensive enough, G would produce a new map page and insert it into the bound volume (they were always bound, it seems).

    This is somewhat different than the way Sanborn operated. Sanborn sent out decals to subscribers to reflect changes in the built environment since the “base” map had been published, but it also regularly produced complete new map sets for a given town every few years. The intervals between “new” complete sets of Goad maps for a city were much greater than Sanborn. The fact that Goad would also produce a new map page and insert it in a set of older map pages also complicates things (Sanborn didn’t do this, so far as I can determine, and I’ve looked at thousands of them).

    there were very few sets of Goad maps actually produced. When a company decided to cancel its subscription, it was legally obliged to return its goad maps (the legality of this was actually tested in the U.K. courts), and Goad would typically destroy that map set. the Goad maps held by the bl are from copyright deposit, for the most part. they are in bound volumes, and contain both “original” map sets and revised pages, interleaved together. this also means that there are many fewer goad maps in circulation outside the bl; they have not received the kind of use that sanborns have at the ‘local’ level, and have not been used in historical analysis nearly so much. copyright in the U.K. would seem to allow public use of goad maps produced and published at least 70 years ago. We could use only pre-1923 Sanborns in GTTS.

    In the U.S., historians and geographers benefit from the fact that the Library of Congress gave a set of original, unbound, and un-pasted up Sanborns to each state some years ago, meaning that if you want to look at the Sanborns for a given town in Texas, you have to go only to Austin, not D.C. Also, a number of U.S. state Sanborn depositories have begun digitizing their holdings of Sanborns: Utah, Georgia, South Carolina, among them. At UNC our library is currently digitizing our complete holdings of Sanborns of N.C.

    The BL is the primary repository for Goad maps, but their usefulness to historians is hindered in several respects. They are all in bound volumes. The only way to get a “copy” of a page from the BL is to have them photograph it (while still in the bound volume). With each page reproduction costing 25 pounds or so (as I recall–I didn’t look into it!), the cost of getting a complete set of Goads for a given city (30-50 pages) would be considerable.

    The BL map archivist I spoke with said that it would love to digitize the Goads, but there are no immediate plans to do so and no likely sources of funds for this purpose.

    There are some holdings of Goads outside the BL: I was told that the Guildhall Library has Goads for London, and Manchester has Goads for that city. Canadian Goads–of which there are hundreds–were borrowed from the BL and microfiched some time ago and are at the national map archive there in ottawa. There are also Goads for Copenhagen, Istanbul, cities in Mexico, Venezuela, Egypt, Italy, and South Africa–all at the BL

    I very much agree with Stephen and Luke that the utility of Goads in understanding the “location” of early cinema venues needs to be explored further, but, like all historical records, they illuminate some things and obscure others. Luke’s right: the intervals between map iterations means that both Goad and Sanborns “miss” many early theaters, particularly storefront theaters and especially (in the US) in the very volatile period 1906-1914. Trying to do quantitative analysis of cinema venues in a given locale based solely on Goad or Sanborn maps would be pretty dodgy. We used Sanborns for 45 towns and cities in N.C. between 1896 and 1922, but we didn’t rely upon them to provide information on cinema venues in operation during that time. City directories and newspaper articles/ads give more “fine grained”–if still not exhaustive–coverage of venue operations. However, locating this data on Sanborn maps does give a sense of the urban landscape within which these venues operated that is, I think, important, and unique.

  9. Bobby,

    Thank you for such a thorough and informative “quick follow up”. I must investigate Goad maps myself, but what I think I can do through the Bioscope is produce a post which can serve as a guide to those interested in researching cinema history in their local area (UK, that is). It would cover newspapers, Board of Trade company records, cinema trade press, film and theatre industry year books, town council records, insurance records, Post Office or Kelly’s directories, and so on. It’s such fun to do, and it connects cinema history with social history – which is what it must be all about.

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