By Katrina Dixon, Media Cataloger
Thanks to a Cataloging Hidden Collections and Archives grant, generously funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), we described 50 film collections, containing over 1,200 reels of film related to work life in early 20th century New England. With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, CLIR administers the national program to identify and catalog hidden special collections and archives.
The 50 selected collections document work by men and women in northern New England agricultural environments, traditional and modernizing industries, and early twentieth century urban situations. The reels are research materials with a range of cataloging requirements from among 800 collections gathered at Northeast Historic Film. Many relate to non-moving image documents in other repositories, as moving images are a demanding medium often separated from related traditional materials. With the help of funding and awareness, media archives may be recognized as equal to manuscript collections, included in scholarly research and teaching, used as the invaluable historic and cultural resources they are.
I found that in this wide range of work life footage is the everyday life of individuals and families, the warm human elements. For each documented process, there are as many everyday moments of simple beauty: a child tugging on his mother’s skirt between rows of flowers in a greenhouse, a group of young men picking up their girlfriends and threatening to lower the ladies into nearby water, the reaction of a man lifting a steel beam when his eyes first see the camera is filming him. Every moment has a story begging to be told.
The Milford Baker Collection contains his tireless efforts to document the construction of the Wyman Dam in Moscow, Maine, in both still and moving images, from 1928-1931.
He set up a small shop at the construction site at the base of the Kennebec River where he sold his photos to visitors. Besides Wyman Dam footage, the collection contains Baker’s home movies, records of those he loved while they pick apples, travel, and enjoy life. Mr. Baker, among a handful of creators whose stories end in similar, ironic fates, drowned in the salmon pool at the base of the dam in 1933, while fishing with friends.
The Leadbetter Collection consists of one reel of film with views of the operations of the John MacGregor Corporation spool mill which made white birch wooden spools for sewing thread. Northeast Historic Film’s Collections Manager, Gemma Perretta, recently chose the Leadbetter Collection as a candidate for preservation through the National Film Preservation Fund, stating, “The significance of this film as a portrait of a small manufacturing plant is underscored as manufacturing across the state continues to collapse. The economy during the 20th century saw many businesses expand beyond regional boundaries, and this reel is a wonderful example of working life in Maine during that time.”
||Leadbetter Collection. Spool mill, women on the line inspecting wooden spools, ca. 1931.
The footage offers views of inside and outside the mill, and details related to the division of labor at the mill. Processes depicted include men feeding lengths of white birch into cutting and drilling machines while women inspect the spools.
Many of the film creators have been active citizens: town historians, general store owners, volunteer firefighters. Some of the best records of work life have been shot by thoughtful people with deep roots in the areas they documented. These filmmakers were very aware that these moments, processes and events would not last, and saw the value in documenting them as they happened. These records exist among family films like seemingly happy accidents. One reel of a collection might be a family picnic and the next reel might be devoted to the process of baling hay.
A wonderful example of one such active citizen is Raymond Cotton, who shot half of the films that make up the Hiram Historical Society Collection. Cotton took it upon himself to document fires, clean-up efforts, natural disasters, parades, construction, demolition, and other work-related processes. Mr. Cotton documented processes from start to finish, offering detailed glimpses into the entire spectrum of a job. His eye speaks to the respect he had for and the care he took in preserving community life in and around Hiram, Maine.
|| Raymond Cotton home movies, Hiram Historical Society Collection. Construction worker aids in the effort to eliminate a railroad crossing, August, 1938.
In 1939, while filming his wife
and daughter on the banks of a rain-swollen river, a dam
broke and swept them all away. Cotton survived, but his
wife and daughter drowned. He lost his camera in the harsh
waters and never filmed again.
The film reels seem to come from everywhere: attics, spare rooms, garages, basements. Film is often forgotten until a death or that moment when someone is struck with an overwhelming desire to revisit his or her past. These reels are our legacies, our records of life, our ties to times, people, and events we may never have experienced. In aggregate they are our region’s home movie collections. Depending upon the eye of the filmmaker, entire processes, moments, and essences of lives are documented. These records deserve proper attention and preservation, assuring accessibility to our cultural heritage for generations to come.
This is a portion of an article originally printed in Memories of Maine magazine.
Moving Images 1938-1940: Amateur Filmmakers Record
the New York World’s Fair and Its Period
Robert Decker Collection frame enlargement.
By Karan Sheldon, Special Projects Director
Brian Graney, Media Cataloger, and Karin Carlson, Media Specialist, joined us in January to describe 1938-1940 collections from Northeast Historic Film, and reels of film shot at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-1940 from NHF, the Queens Museum of Art, and the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
Funding equaling $186,900 was provided through the Council on Library and Information Resources, Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program. Collaborating with content specialists and film preservation experts at our partner organizations allows for the exchange of information necessary to serve current and future scholars and the public. Caitlin McGrath, University of Chicago Ph.D., started working with our New York World’s Fair amateur film (see New York World’s Fair).
Our public finding aids, including those created in the 2010 Work Life description project, contain minimal information on a few NYWF reels. McGrath had to visit Bucksport to find out more, working with Gemma Perretta, collections manager. Later this year, McGrath and others will find more than 30 reels of amateur film shot at The World of Tomorrow fully described and indexed on our new site, fairfilm.org.
Answering Questions About Amateur Film
We are thrilled to uncover these holdings and to share the context provided by their situation in intact collections: How was mobility and the built environment conveyed in amateur film at the fair and in reels shot before and after? What kinds of entertainment merit the exposure of color film? (We find that staged events like Billy Rose’s Aquacade are covered at length). On to the whys: is this an aide memoire, does time shift in seated vantage points, who is it shot for? A University of Southern Maine senior seminar taught by Libby Bischof studied some reels; student essays are published on our website.
At George Eastman House & Queens Museum
Brian Graney, the project’s Media Cataloger, says,“The enthusiastic engagement of the Selznick School students as full partners in the project has been one of its more rewarding aspects to date.” Graney earned an MLS degree and graduated from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House, where the project returned this spring to work with current students of the preservation program on cataloging NYWF film. For more on that process, visit our project blog: nhftreasures.blogspot.com
Louise Weinberg, Queens Museum of Art Curator, brought her content expertise to the three-day training at the Selznick School. She works in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where the NYWF was held. Her newest exhibition, through August 14, is Future Perfect: Re-Constructing the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Weinberg says, “There are many, many things that were introduced at the Fair. World’s Fairs are a way to bring together new ideas, new technologies and introduce them.” The Queens Museum of Art will host Home Movie Day on Saturday, Oct. 15. Everyone is invited to share their home movies, especially World’s Fairs!
Metadata expert Jack Brighton joined us at the Selznick School and will be part of the team in Austin, Texas, when we offer an AV cataloging workshop at the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference on November 16.
A Boston hands-on introductory cataloging workshop, Describing Moving Images, will be held at Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences on Sept. 27 with instructors Graney, Andrea Leigh (Library of Congress, Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation) and Courtney Michael (WGBH Media and Archives). Visit us online to register.
Boston TV News Project
By Karin Carlson, Media Specialist
The Boston TV News Project is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and CLIR and is a collaboration between WGBH, the Boston Public Library, Northeast Historic Film and Cambridge Community Television. The aim is to bring to life local news stories produced in and about Boston from the early 1960s to 2000.
WCVB Collection in the NHF media storage vault.
Processing the WCVB Collection is a big job, and while sorting through thousands of film reels may sound mundane, it has, in fact, been extraordinary. The collection of over 4,000 cans of 16mm news film was brought to Northeast Historic Film a couple of years ago.
After years of tracking the collection, David Weiss, NHF Executive Director, jumped at the chance to move it to our vaults. The staff went to Woonsocket, RI, where the film was stored in the basement of an old bank and returned to Maine with a heavily-loaded Ryder truck. The collection consists of news stories from 1972-1979, and each can contains between 1 and 19 rolls of film.
The cans were placed in the NHF vault in rough chronological order. Most have a date written on them and contain reels of news stories from that day. The reels are also labeled with a date and a one-to-two-word description of the story, or slug. Sometimes the date on the reels does not match the date on the can, but fortunately that is the exception not the rule.
Each can is its own time capsule, and I never know what I will find inside. Some contain neatly labeled reels, film that is stored on reels or cores, and an assignment sheet with short descriptions of the stories that were filmed that day.
Other cans are overflowing with poorly wound film that shoots out like a Jack-in-the-box when I remove the lid. Many cans are filled with dust and dirt, sometimes so thick that it leaves an impression on the lid. One can contained a reel that was covered in a thick spider web, and in another I found a few used cigarette butts. Many contain IOU notes from various WCVB staff over the years about a story pulled from the can, which, for one reason or another, never found its way back. Regardless of what I may find inside, each can is cleaned up, the information is recorded, and the reels are returned in a more orderly state.
Despite finding some reels in less than ideal shape, most of the film appears to be in very good condition. A decade of Boston history is documented within these film cans, including the busing controversy in 1974, on-the-street interviews about Nixon’s resignation, protests and strikes, fires, and smaller stories about newly-opened restaurants, high school sports stars, car accidents, and construction around the city.
As I slowly make my way through the pile of red cans, I am happy to know that I am one step closer to making these stories available.