This short essay sketches the career of Anita Uada Maris Boggs, cofounder of the Bureau of Commercial Education, a charitable organization that from the 1910s through the 1930s circulated a library of sponsored films. I argue that Boggs's absence from film historiography has been doubly determined: first by the relative invisibility of educational film, and second by ideologies of gender that obscured women's work in the film industry, broadly construed, behind that of their male collaborators.
The Bureau of Commercial Economics, though unfamiliar to us today, was a major presence in the fledgling field of industrial and educational film during the silent era. From its founding in 1913 until its dissolution in the 1930s, the Bureau distributed hundreds of films, primarily industry-sponsored films, but also frequently travelogues and local films, to audiences across the country and around the world. The Bureau, despite its name, was not a governmental entity. Rather, it was incorporated as a charitable institution, and its operational costs were paid by donors and sponsors. Its films were screened, always free of charge, in a range of venues, including high schools, convention halls, and community centers, and even in the open air via a fleet of specially outfitted projection trucks. International in scope, the organization had ties to various departments of the U.S. government, universities and colleges, and civic and trade organizations.1 In 1920, it claimed to reach two million viewers a month.2
Because no centralized archive documenting the Bureau's activities exists, it has proven difficult to trace.3 Even more difficult has been accounting for the work of its cofounder Anita Uada Maris Boggs (figure 1). Boggs (1888–1937), like other women active in the film industry during the silent period, worked with a male partner, in this case a man named Francis Holley. While Holley's name can be found in numerous newspaper stories from the 1910s and '20s, when he was on the road in the service of the Bureau, Boggs's name was much less frequently in the news. When it was, it appeared in the context of broad profiles that surveyed the organization as a whole or, sometimes, as was the case later in the Bureau's history, in the women's or social section. In this way, Boggs's work has been doubly erased from history. First, she toiled in the decidedly unglamorous field of educational film, a sphere of filmmaking and distribution that is only recently receiving scholarly attention.4 Second, Boggs operated, and even in recent scholarship continues to operate, in the shadow of her male partner, whose face and story became the public identity of the Bureau. Rescuing Boggs from obscurity becomes doubly important, then, because not only can it illuminate the way that gender inflects the history of nontheatrical film, but it also can provide insight into the gendered dynamics of male-female partnerships during the silent era.
In her time, Boggs was a significant public figure, at least in certain circles. In 1933, a profile with the headline “A. Maris Boggs Heads Enterprise for World Amity” appeared in the Washington Post.5 Written by Frances Mangum, a frequent contributor to the Post's social and women's pages, the profile turns on the incongruence between Boggs's gender and her work toward global understanding. Mangum marvels that “a very tiny, feminine person … the most friendly un-official person imaginable” is at the same time “one of the great people of the world.” Boggs's work is described in the register of affect rather than one of diplomacy as bringing about “a happier state of things.”6 Despite this reliance on tried-and-true tropes of incredulity at women's ability to be effective in the public sphere, the article does discuss Boggs's academic and professional credentials at length and gives her ample opportunity to elaborate on the ways in which she believes films can generate empathy as well as stimulate a desire for commercial products and curiosity about new modes of production.
The Post's article omits completely any mention of the Bureau's cofounder, Holley, who had died a decade earlier. Perhaps Boggs was taking back some credit she had been deprived of during Holley's lifetime. To offer just one example, in 1916, Holley spoke to the Second Pan American Scientific Conference, describing the Bureau of Commercial Economics' work in distributing free-of-charge films that show “by graphic methods how things in common use are made and produced, and from what sources the raw material is obtained, and under what conditions labor is called upon to serve in their production.”7 The landscape of visual instruction Holley sketches in his comments consists of nonfiction films whose topics range from plastic surgery and the olive industry to petroleum production and silk weaving in Japan.8 He notes that “an advisory council composed of college presidents and men of international distinction in science and letters” makes the organization's work possible.9 In his address, he makes no mention of the Bureau's dean and cofounder, twenty-eight-year-old Anita Maris Boggs. Indeed, the speech adheres to a template for the organization's public relations material in which attention is focused on Holley as the Bureau's public face and founder.
It is unclear how the much older Holley and Maris Boggs came to work together.10 The two certainly had no romantic connection. He was a lifelong bachelor, and she remained unmarried until her death in 1937 in Jerusalem, where she had been living with a younger female companion. Perhaps they were introduced through Boggs's father, who was the director of freight for the Reading Railroad and may have known Holley, a former civil engineer who had worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad as it expanded across the continent. The historical record may never clarify the particulars. Regardless, accounts of the Bureau's founding that appeared in the press consistently focus on Holley's personal narrative. The story, though it varies somewhat, covers the same basic ground. Holley experienced years of adult-onset blindness, which was finally cured in 1893 by an experimental operation in Europe. As reported in several profiles of Holley, after his surgery he decided to devote himself to putting motion pictures to work, “helping people with perfectly good eyes to see.”11
While this story made great copy and is difficult to prove or disprove, the Bureau just as clearly owed its existence to the imaginative and energetic intellect of its cofounder, Boggs.12 Boggs came from a respectable Pennsylvania family whose lineage on both sides extended back to the American Revolution. Her father, as mentioned above, held a management position with the railroad, and her mother was a woman of considerable means from a prominent local family. They were the type of family whose activities made the local papers' society columns. In addition to accounts of social events the family attended, both local papers in her hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reported the honors Boggs received from the girls' school she attended, her enrollment at Bryn Mawr in 1906, and the scholarship she received to attend the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School for the academic year 1910–11.13 Though she did not, as Sean Savage notes, stray far geographically from her family's home, she was among the first cohort of college-educated professional women who, in the early twentieth century, set out to do the work of progressive reform.14 In 1922, the Bryn Mawr College Calendar listed her profession as “Specialist in Visual Instruction at the Bureau of Education” (a predecessor to the Department of Education that operated under the Department of the Interior).15 A 1922 directory of notables in the nation's capital highlighted the fact that Boggs was the “author of articles in educational and trade magazines” and the editor of the Bureau's intriguingly titled house publication Vision.16 She also served as president of the League of American Pen Women, a women's literary society that continues its work today, and was a member of the Royal Geographic Society, the Academy of World Economics, and the Academy of Political and Social Sciences. This formidable curriculum vitae and extensive elite education did not prevent one widely circulated article about the Bureau from describing her as a “young woman of activities,” a description that even as it acknowledges her achievements casts her labor as more of a hobby than anything else.17
Though we do not know the particulars of her course of study at the Wharton School, her work there seems to have significantly shaped the Bureau's mission. Two essays written by Boggs around the time of the Bureau's founding suggest as much. Appearing a year apart in Pedagogical Seminary, a journal edited by psychologist and eugenics advocate G. Stanley Hall, the essays offer a sense of Boggs's views on the working classes and the visual politics that those views inspired. Boggs begins the first one, “Cultural Schools or Continuation Schools,” by framing the labor of social workers, educators, and “eugenists” as being of vital importance to “the parents of the future American race.”18 Extolling the value of Germany's cultural schools, part of the Volk movement, in which Hall was deeply interested, Boggs argues that American workers “should be the best informed, most keenly interested people in the world.” For Boggs, educating the working classes “to assimilate, to digest and to draw intelligent conclusions from [their] facts” would transform that sector of society “into a forceful positive factor who in the long run will carry the standards of progress far in advance of the most highly specialized specialist.”19 She saw continuation schools, schools that continued to educate workers after they had entered the workforce, as vital to this reformist project.
Exactly one year later, in January 1914, in an essay titled “Visualized Opportunity,” Boggs presents motion pictures as the answer to the inadequacies of vocational education in the United States.20 After a lengthy introduction detailing the problems that young people were having in finding jobs adequate to their interests and skills, Boggs describes the Bureau of Commercial Economics as an innovative organization in the field of social reform. While she reiterates the description of the Bureau's work that Holley would mobilize in subsequent presentations and press coverage—“To depict fully and accurately the industrial processes and to illustrate how things in common use are made and produced”—she also makes clear the desired function of those films as a catalyst for integration into the workforce.21 She distinguishes between “educational films” and a type of film she refers to as “films of opportunity.” “Films of opportunity,” she writes, “are those which disclose to the observer some avenue of employment … through them the whole world of industry and commerce, of gainful employment may be shown on the screen.”22 The Bureau's target populations, she notes, would first be university students, easily reachable by the organization's original supporting members, university professors and industrialists. Once the organization is established, she continues, “the work will be extended to the high schools, public institutions, settlement houses, missions, commercial clubs and trade conventions.”23 The Bureau had other ambitions as well: “to improve the material conditions of the negroes of the South” and “the illiterates of the back country of the United States.”24 While some of the plans the Bureau had developed never came to fruition—for example, an “experimental research institute” that would have tried out the Bureau's educational methods on a group of eight “illiterate” boys—the class- and race-inflected bases of the organization come into focus in reading these two pieces side by side.25
These essays suggest that Boggs may have been the intellectual architect of the Bureau's mission, a possibility subsequently erased in Holley's becoming the public face and mouthpiece of the organization. Despite the fact that she was only infrequently mentioned in press coverage of the Bureau's activities, and both press coverage and correspondence indicate that Holley was more likely than she to travel domestically in support of the Bureau's work, it is clear that Boggs was deeply involved in both the Bureau's day-to-day affairs and its strategic initiatives. For example, when Francis Holley, as director, entered into a contract with the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1918 to solicit business for Universal's Industrial Film Production division, Boggs took over a great deal of Holley's workload at the Bureau.26 Evidence also indicates that Boggs personally funded some of the Bureau's work, and in at least one instance she brokered opportunities for budding female filmmakers. These were the Ehlers sisters, who came from Mexico to study at Universal Film Manufacturing's various labs and studios.27
My preliminary research suggests that Boggs's biography, cobbled out of a diverse array of archival sources, incomplete and intriguingly silent on many questions, may provide compelling evidence of the way that the history of useful media has been inflected by gender. When Boggs died in 1937 in Jerusalem, where she had been living with explorer Dorothy Quincy Smith, her many achievements and activities were reported in obituaries in major U.S. and international newspapers, which labeled her “cosmopolitan” and a “widely known economist and educator.”28 From that moment onward, save for a brief mention by Arthur Edwin Krows in his series on nontheatrical film published in Educational Screen in 1939, Boggs has remained behind the scenes of film history, just as she seemingly remained behind the scenes of the Bureau's activities during her lifetime.29 (figure 2)
Though both Holley and Boggs, at different points in the organization's history, seemed desirous of downplaying the other's role, the success of the Bureau during the silent era depended on their ability to mobilize their respective strengths, or, put another way, to perform according to gendered expectations. For Holley, this may have been his ability to connect with businesspeople, essentially other men, whose world he knew intimately from his work on the railroad. For Boggs, this may have meant using her formidable education and social networks to promote the Bureau's work. As Boggs's story, here much abbreviated, suggests, the critical lens of gender is an important tool in writing the history of useful media. Unearthing the stories of figures such as Anita Maris Boggs and their role in shaping educational film in the United States and abroad can instruct us in the gendered politics of visual education in the early twentieth century and the gendered dimensions of film historiography.30