Arts and Leisure

Seeing Boston By Streetcar on Film in 1906

Seeing Boston By Streetcar stands as one of the first films of the city ever made. It offers today’s viewer a fascinating glimpse of the city’s smoky, busy streets. The streetcar takes the viewer past Jordan Marsh and along Boylston Street to Copley Square and the Boston Public Library. Pedestrians, horses, carriages and carts vie for space in a free-for-all with no traffic lights, no crosswalks and no stop signs.

Viewers who first saw the film during its debut in 1906 probably found it even more fascinating.

(Click here to watch. Note the brief fistfight at 2:26.)


Seeing Boston By Streetcar scene

The motion picture industry had just started when American Mutoscope and Biograph Company filmed Boston by streetcar in 1906.

On April 14, 1894, the first kinetoscope parlor opened in New York City. Patrons viewed moving pictures through a peephole, which Thomas Edison’s laboratory invented. 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. It typically showed a series of short films of real life, drama and entertainment. Cameramen traveled the United States filming scenery to product those short films of real life.

Seeing Boston By Streetcar

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

People considered early movies technical 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 gave it no warm applause. An inventor named Benson Bidwell brought a demonstration model to the city. He hoped for a contract to build and operate a streetcar line. Bidwell 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 opened to Brookline on Jan. 5, 1889. Within seven years, the city had a network of electric streetcars. As Boston By Streetcar shows, fear of the cars had disappeared.

This story about seeing Boston by streetcar was updated in 2019. 

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