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Seeing Boston By Streetcar on Film in 1906

Seeing Boston By Streetcar was one of the first films of the city ever made. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the city’s smoky, busy streets, past Jordan Marsh and along Boylston Street to Copley Square and the Boston Public Library.

The film was possibly even more interesting to viewers when it debuted in 1906.

The motion picture industry was in its infancy. On April 14, 1894, the first kinetoscope parlor opened in New York City. Patrons viewed moving pictures through a peephole, an invention of Thomas Edison’s laboratory. In New York two years later came the first commercially successful movie projection, again with an Edison invention – the Vitascope. Weeks later in Boston, Benjamin Franklin Keith showed a film with the Vitascope in his vaudeville theatre on 547 Washington Street.

In 1906, Boston’s first movie theatre, the Theatre Comique, opened on Tremont Row in Scollay Square. Typical fare was a series of short films of real life, drama and entertainment. Those short films of real life – like Seeing Boston By Streetcar – were produced by cameramen who traveled the United States filming scenery.

A major figure in the early motion picture industry shot Seeing Boston By Streetcar. He was a cinematographer named G.W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, born in Roxbury, Mass., in 1872. Bitzer developed early cinematic technologies and techniques such as the fadeout, the soft focus and the close-up.

Early movies were considered marvels. The Boston Herald gushed over the debut of the Vitascope:

The scenes shown are full of life and action, simply lacking in vocalization. To describe the enthusiasm aroused would be impossible. Worthy professors and scientific men vied with grocery clerks in the warmth of their applause.

Twenty-five years earlier, Boston greeted the electric streetcar with similar awe, but no warm applause. An inventor named Benson Bidwell brought a demonstration model to the city, hoping for a contract to build and operate a streetcar line. He described the reaction in the winter of 1884-85:

The cars were nicely upholstered and made a sensation among the Boston Yankees, who, when they came to fully understand that an unseen power was running, lighting and heating the cars, said it was either magic or a fraud; for they could not comprehend though they were afraid of it.

He didn't get the contract, but other people did. Bostonians quickly got over their fears after the first streetcar line – the Beacon Street Route from Boston to Brookline -- opened on Jan. 5, 1889. Within seven years, the city had a network of electric streetcars. As Boston By Streetcar shows, fear of the cars was gone.

4 comments

  1. This was a fascinating look at Boston history. People watching is so timeless. Has anybody thought about recording the same footage today and put it as a side by side to document the changes to the city over a century? That would be a sweet video.

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