This essay analyzes how “sociological films,” an early iteration of social problem films during the 1910s, participated in a wider historical formation of social reform, one that was heavily influenced by women. It investigates the category of sociological film as it was discussed in Moving Picture World; the connection between practical Progressive Era reform initiatives and the emerging field of sociology, especially through the figure of Jane Addams and the social settlement movement; and reform publicity methods, which included sociological moving pictures along with photographs, living displays, and interactive exhibits on child labor and civic welfare. Reform exhibits were frequently organized through women's volunteer organizations and relied on women's voluntary labor. Female participant observer sociologists talked about the importance of social imagination. Addams's sympathetic understanding was implicated in a gendered construction of knowledge of the social. The essay develops the notion of a “secular spectator” as a way of characterizing an address in sociological films both to a social subject who was part of a social formation of reform, and to a civic subject who was enjoined to do something about social problems based on knowledge of social facts and social sympathy.

A young woman distressed about her impoverished circumstances lies awake in bed with two younger siblings while a superimposed hand displaying the word “poverty” enters the frame and hovers above her head (fig. 1). The woman, Eva, the main character in Lois Weber's Shoes (1916), works long hours as a salesgirl in a five-and-ten-cent store. She cannot afford a new pair of shoes to replace her badly worn ones and eventually succumbs to the sexual advances of Charlie, a cabaret singer, in order to obtain them. Shoes depicts a physical and social environment in which garbage is strewn on the landing of tenement stairs, a man loitering in a doorway ducks inside to avoid a passing policeman, salesgirls line up by the cashier's desk to get their weekly pay, and overcrowded living arrangements involve sleeping three to a bed. In Children of Eve (1915), Mamie, a dance-hall denizen, becomes an undercover factory inspector under the tutelage of a settlement worker, identifies unsafe practices in a canning factory owned by Henry Clay Madison, and dies from injuries sustained in a fire at the factory. In one scene, Madison reads a newspaper article in which the Child Welfare League criticizes his use of child labor, whereupon a spectral figure of a factory girl in chains imploring him to take notice appears in his study (fig. 2). Children of Eve also depicts Mamie and the raucous sexual dancing associated with dance-hall culture, and Mamie and child laborers pasting labels on cans in Madison's run-down factory, which Mamie notes has inadequate fire exits (fig. 3). In Regeneration (1915, reissued 1919), an orphaned boy, Owen Conway, eventually becomes the leader of an adult gang but is rehabilitated thanks to the love of a female settlement worker, Marie Deering. The settlement worker is shot by one of Owen's former gang members, and on her deathbed she enjoins Owen not to seek revenge by pointing to a banner containing a paraphrased passage from the Book of Romans in the Bible: “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord” (fig. 4). Regeneration also portrays the corrupting influence of the slums on the young Owen when as a boy he is sent to get a pail of beer for his neighbor and takes a sip when the pail is passed to him underneath the swinging doors of the saloon. The only playground for the babies and young children in his tenement is the stairway (fig. 5).

Eva and the hand of poverty in Shoes (dir. Lois Weber), 1916. Courtesy EYE and Milestone Film.
Eva and the hand of poverty in Shoes (dir. Lois Weber), 1916. Courtesy EYE and Milestone Film.
The spectral figure of a child laborer pleads with Madison, a capitalist factory owner, in Children of Eve (dir. John H. Collins), 1915.
The spectral figure of a child laborer pleads with Madison, a capitalist factory owner, in Children of Eve (dir. John H. Collins), 1915.
Mamie (in the foreground) takes notes on dirty and unsafe conditions in a canning factory in Children of Eve (dir. John H. Collins), 1915.
Mamie (in the foreground) takes notes on dirty and unsafe conditions in a canning factory in Children of Eve (dir. John H. Collins), 1915.
In Regeneration (dir. Raoul Walsh), 1915, Marie Deering, a settlement worker, enjoins Owen Conway, a former gang leader, not to seek revenge by pointing to a banner of scripture.
In Regeneration (dir. Raoul Walsh), 1915, Marie Deering, a settlement worker, enjoins Owen Conway, a former gang leader, not to seek revenge by pointing to a banner of scripture.

During the 1910s, these films were characterized as “sociological,” a designation that included what was later called message or problem films.1 The economic struggle behind casual prostitution in the case of Eva and the transformations of a tough, Mamie, and a gang member, Owen, under the influence of settlement workers illustrate timely social problem topics. Environmental details figure in the background of dramatic action as indexical markers of social conditions in need of transformation. In the context of these modern social thematics and a visual style of verisimilitude, the superimposed shots of the hand of poverty, the spectral figure, and the scriptural passage are curious.

Or, more precisely, these three shots are overly didactic in their explicit address to spectators in the context of diegetic illusionism and visually hyperbolic in contrast with the close observation of the details of physical and social environments in the films. In the case of Shoes and Regeneration, a didactic address functions like a de facto commentary on the action.2 The superimposed hand of poverty makes the point to spectators that poverty victimizes individuals like Eva and that this situation is unjust; and the scriptural passage enjoins spectators along with Owen to remember that there is a higher purpose in doing God's work in the slums. In the case of Children of Eve, the spectral figure of the child laborer adds pathos to the lesson learned by the unconcerned capitalist, Madison, when on Mamie's deathbed he discovers that the young woman is his daughter. A seeming incongruity in these shots raises an initial question that frames this essay. While the hand of poverty, the spectral figure, and the scriptural passage could be explained as symbolic or metaphorical figurations of character interiority or the products of authorial style—especially that of Weber, who talked about her films as “preachments”—the question I ask in this essay is: How are they historical?3 

Children play on a dirty tenement stairway while a drunken neighbor staggers past them in Regeneration (dir. Raoul Walsh), 1915.
Children play on a dirty tenement stairway while a drunken neighbor staggers past them in Regeneration (dir. Raoul Walsh), 1915.

The reply lies broadly in the relationship between sociological films during the 1910s and reform during the Progressive Era. Reform organizations sponsored a number of sociological films during the 1910s, and sociological moving pictures were used by reform and civic organizations in welfare exhibits, national conferences, and lectures. The didactic and hyperbolic shots as seeming figures of stylistic excess point to a historical field of reform discourses and practices in transition, one that is characterized by various blurred categories. In formal and film industrial terms, for example, these films support Lee Grieveson's analysis of the fluid relationship between education and entertainment during the transitional period and Karen Eifler's related sense of the relationship between instruction and attraction in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century lantern slide performances.4 

The formation of reform is also complicated by a close connection between social reform practices and the emerging field of sociology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in terms of the concept of sympathy to characterize relations in society. And this relationship is implicated in a gendered construction of knowledge about the social during this period. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries an emerging discipline of sociology was connected to a female culture of reform associated with settlement houses, women's clubs, female trade unionists, working women in paid positions in welfare organizations and government agencies, and women sociologists. As Jennifer Horne argues, women's voluntary work in women's clubs was an important factor in film culture.5 Female voluntary labor also subtended wider reform initiatives, including the struggle against child labor, and for child welfare more generally. Finally, the seeming anomaly in the three films is related to an extensive culture of reform publicity that conjoined sociological analysis and didactic strategies and refigured a performative visual culture of nineteenth-century social problem lantern slides. This refiguration involves a mode of film spectatorship that I call the secular spectator. My use of the term “secular” reinforces an address both to a social subject who was part of a social formation of reform and to a civic subject who was enjoined to do something about social problems based on social facts and a sympathetic understanding of the circumstances of others. The secular spectator of sociological films, I argue, is a transformation of the religious spectator of social problem lantern slide performances.

More precisely, in the following sections of this essay, I discuss the category of sociological film as it was used in film industry trade periodicals, especially Moving Picture World; the connection between “sociological” as a film category and the emerging field of sociology in the early twentieth century; and Progressive Era reform publicity, which included sociological moving pictures. Drawing on Michel Foucault's archaeological intervention, the theoretical-methodological strategy in this essay treats sociological films as historical statements that circulated in relation to other historical statements, thereby constituting a particular epistemological field.6 Epistemology for Foucault is a historical term that points to how discourses and practices involve particular ways of knowing in different historical periods. An archaeological film historiography, moreover, moves away from a univocal causality in the (film) text and (historical) context relationship in order to make myriad types of relations appear. During the period under investigation, institutional affiliations, discursive correspondences, and similarities in the ways statements functioned across different sites produced the social as a form of knowledge.7 


As a term used to describe moving pictures, “sociology” had a broad scope during the transitional period, a symptom of the fluid character of film types and genres and the shifting valence between educational and entertainment cinema.8 The category of “sociological” included one-, two-, and multi-reel fiction films on social problems and nonfiction films on civic and welfare issues. Fiction films on social problems dramatized the topics of child labor, insufficient wages, poor working conditions in factories and department stores, poverty and the slums, prostitution, debt and usury, tuberculosis, and the social and socializing importance of recreation centers and settlement houses. Nonfiction films on civic and welfare topics addressed public and child welfare, the work of city government agencies and voluntary organizations such as health departments and settlement houses, and the customs of people in foreign countries.

Moreover, institutional relationships between the film industry and reform organizations characterized the production, distribution, and exhibition of these films. In the case of production, the Edison studio in particular made a number of sponsored one-reel dramatic films in conjunction with reform organizations. Examples include The Awakening of John Bond (1911) on tuberculosis and slum conditions, sponsored by the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis; At the Threshold of Life (1911) on the importance of children's play, sponsored by the National Kindergarten Association; Children Who Labor (1912) on the problem of child labor, sponsored by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC); and Charlie's Reform (1912) on the value of recreation centers over dance halls, sponsored by the Division of Recreation of the Russell Sage Foundation.9 

As part of the broader designation of educational moving pictures, sociological films were discussed in a column in Moving Picture World, which was initially called “Education, Science and Art and the Moving Picture” (March 12, 1910), as Eileen Bowser notes, and eventually “The Moving Picture Educator” (starting December 16, 1911), which periodically included a “catalogue” or listing of educational films.10 In 1913 there was an extended discussion in Moving Picture World over how to categorize these films, and the catalogue itself developed into an extensive list with numbered topical headings and subheadings.11 There was debate over how detailed the classification system should be in the context of the broader issue of how a system designed for books would be best adapted for films. The Dewey decimal system, the related Belgian system (which was described as a more practical variant of Dewey's system), and the general rules of the American Library Association were options discussed in the journal.12 Discussion extended to how elaborate the numerical subdivisions within the categories should be. W. Stephen Bush argued for simplicity, selective applicability of categories used to classify books, and the inclusion of dramatic films in the category of “Social Economics,” noting that they “have a distinct value as lessons in social economics.”13 

In these discussions, educational films were treated as a type of knowledge by the industry. The fact that the method of classification for books in libraries, which was an already-familiar system of organizing knowledge, was conceived as relevant for moving pictures reinforces this point. More specifically, the category of “sociological” was associated with social problems and the analysis of society. In 1911, the General Film Company of New York classified its educational moving pictures according to categories such as useful arts, fine arts, religious literature, and sociology, which studies “social problems of the country and economic questions and conditions of the cities … giving views of various enterprises already used for the benefit of humanity.”14 In the column “The Moving Picture Educator,” Shoes is characterized as a sociological film based on the fact of its “story of a girl's struggle against social and financial conditions.”15 

The film industry's use of “sociological” was similar to a more widespread use of the term as standing in for social problems and their analysis, which extended to “sociological students” as individuals who were observing and analyzing social problems.16 Moreover, the connection between particular films and “enterprises” (or sponsoring reform organizations and other agencies and associations showing moving pictures) whose views were expressed in films not only informed how social problems were represented in the films but also legitimated the films through the imprimatur of the organizations that were otherwise engaged in practical reform. Louis Reeves Harrison foregrounded this authority in the case of Edison-sponsored films when he commented that “the Edison people were wise enough to co-operate with those who knew what they were doing and talking about.”17 Other enterprises, such as the Chicago Department of Health, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, the Chicago Tuberculosis Institute, and the New York Child Welfare Committee, loaned dramatic and nonfiction films for use in welfare exhibits and lectures.18 

The value of sociological films as lessons about society also conformed to the more general pedagogy of educational film as it was conceived by the film industry. Films would improve upon the pedagogical practices already used in schools associated with school trips, for example, enabling students to learn by “seeing for themselves” “actual examples” of developments in the “arts and sciences” and “commercial and industrial developments” along with “sociological problems at close range and by positive experience.”19 Both the efficiency of moving pictures, which enabled teachers to avoid the logistical and expensive aspects of actual travel, and the inductive logic of learning from specific cases were enhanced by moving pictures. “Pedagogical” in educational films here is related to “sociological” in fictional films in the sense that the examples function like case studies of particular social problems. The visual aspect of films enabled students of sociology to see conditions for themselves, namely, “From the beginning they [spectators] are helped by the apparent honesty and sincerity of the impersonal picture,” which involves “a life and truth portrayed” “with all the vividness and reality that none can withstand, argue, dispute or gainsay.”20 “Impersonal” carries the (unintended) implication of the indexical sign in which the authority of these moving pictures is bound up with their reference to a real (or, as André Bazin channeling Charles Sanders Peirce would later say, the “impassive lens” of the camera).21 

To be sure, film studios moved into the educational realm for commercial reasons, and reports on the use of educational and sociological films in Moving Picture World and elsewhere enhanced the cultural authority of the film industry and served as a defense against moral critics and national censorship efforts. As Amanda R. Keeler notes, Edison was a key promoter of educational films in the classroom, which she argues was largely a business decision to promote the sales of his equipment, and not everyone (notably John Dewey) was convinced that learning from films would be a positive educational experience.22 

Oliver Gaycken discusses the importance of a new mass market associated with Edison's move into educational cinema, which accompanied a progressive investment in betterment as well as a self-conscious use of good publicity by Edison in a photograph in The Literary Digest in which he appears surrounded by a group of boys with the caption “Mr. Edison and Some of His Censors.” As Gaycken notes, the “stern associations of censorship [in this photograph] are submitted to a playful inversion.”23 The same image appears on the cover of the charities reform journal The Survey, and is associated with a series of entries on the issue of Edison's move into educational cinema by major figures including Dewey, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, and Judge Ben B. Lindsey, a key figure in the juvenile court system. The caption of this photograph similarly constructs Edison as one of the boys, namely, “A Kids’ Gang of the Oranges with Edison as One of the Bunch.” The fact that educational cinema was debated in this major reform journal as well as the title of the overall article, “Edison vs. Euclid: Has He Invented a Moving-Stairway to Learning,” reinforce both the substantive reform issues at stake in the debate about educational films and the publicity value for Edison construed as a great figure in education, akin to Euclid.24 

Articles in Moving Picture World also included statements of industry boosterism and self-congratulatory arguments about how much the industry had improved. “Never before has education been so absolutely entertaining, or an entertainment so thoroughly educational” begins the article “Education with Pleasure” on the General Film Company's educational films.25 Moving pictures are also defended as an unwitting sociological vehicle. Now that the “hubbub of the ‘moving picture evil’ has passed into history” along with the former “financial and moral vultures” such as scurrilous exhibitors and overzealous reformers, argues an article entitled “Sociological” in 1911, the stage is set to realize the social value of moving pictures; indeed, “all thanks is due to the picture for revealing these social conditions.”26 The subtitle of another 1911 article by W. H. Jackson makes the same point: “A Sociological Study: Moving Picture Censorship Strangely Helpful in Revealing Social Conditions.”27 Straightforward reporting on the use of sociological films by civic and reform groups also helped to authorize the film industry as a participant in the public good. In 1912, “prominent New York students of sociology” visited the Thanhouser Co. during the filming of The Cry of the Children, a film on child labor. Local exhibitors were encouraged to “invite leading sociological students in their localities to see it,” and the film was expected to “‘make a noise’” in all parts of the country.28 The New York School of Philanthropy in 1912 organized a special exhibition of five Edison-sponsored dramatic films and characterized them as providing a “great humanitarian” service by “revealing conditions in every social aspect.”29 

The benefits to the film industry notwithstanding, sociological film was both a category of knowledge and a condition of knowledge. As a category, “sociological” was a capacious term. Reading across a number of entries in “The Picture and the Pulpit” and “The Motion Picture Educator” during the months of March and April 1913, for example, subheadings within the category of sociology include “Capital and Labor”; “Penology”; “War: Army and Navy”; “Civil Administration and Charitable Institutions” and alternatively, “Institutions and Associations”; and “Manners and Customs,” which is also broken down into “Costumes and Fashion,” “Public and Social Life,” and “Folklore and Fairy Tales.” Films listed within these categories also cover a broad range of film types. For example, “Capital and Labor” includes The Crime of Carelessness (1912), which is about fire risks in factories and was sponsored by the National Association of Manufactures; Child Labor (1913); and Sisters All (1913), which is described as “a socialistic plea for a ‘living wage.’”30 “Penology” includes The Lost Note (1913), “on the value of circumstantial and presumptive evidence,” and The Redemption (1913), a “study in criminal sociology.”31 “War” includes films on the Balkan war, the Serbian army, the Japanese army, and French army maneuvers. “Civil Administration” includes The Error of Omission (1913) on the importance of registering births.32 “Charitable Institutions” includes The Other Half (1913), a drama that “illustrates the greater value of organized over unorganized charity,” made with the cooperation of the New York Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, as well as nonfiction films such as Saving the Innocents (1912), which “illustrates the care and education of defective and deformed children in institutions”; What New York Is Doing for Its Deaf, Dumb, and Blind (1913); and Mine Rescue Work of the American Red Cross Society (1913).33 “Manners and Customs” includes nonfictional anthropological subjects of other peoples, for example Curious Scenes in India (1912) and Life in Egypt (1913); American subjects such as The Mardi Gras, New Orleans (1913), Strange Places and Quaint People in New York (1913), and Rush Hour in New York (1913); current events, including Suffragette Parade in Washington (1913); and fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk (1913).34 The later-released Regeneration, Children of Eve, and Shoes fall within the sociological designation.35 

As these lists of subcategories and related films indicate, the category of “sociological” ranged from politically focused dramatic films about the opposition between capital and labor, to fairy tales as variants of a phantasmatic folklore, to actual folklore about people in foreign lands, to socially relevant or unusual or simply interesting examples of customs in the United States, to documents of contemporary life, to instructional films on how contemporary life is administered, to how relief agencies do their work, to a story about a salesgirl who turns to casual sex in order to buy a new pair of shoes, to a story about a gang member who has a good character and turns to crime because of a bad environment but redeems himself. While the list does not have the same degree of curious mixing as the passage from Jorge Luis Borges on the divisions of animals in a Chinese encyclopedia, which Michel Foucault analyzes in The Order of Things as a “wonderment of … taxonomy,” the eclectic grouping of categories and types of film is curious enough, one that the ordering according to topics does not overcome.36 This mixing of categories suggests that “sociological” is an epistemological concept in the making.

As a condition of knowledge, “sociological” was associated with revealing social conditions and with a particular way of understanding those conditions. In the 1911 article “Sociological,” the author makes a distinction between “self-appointed” reformers who rush to judgment and wrong conclusions versus those who adopt “an engineering turn of mind who look for the cause while only condemning the effect.”37 In “A Sociological Study,” Jackson distinguishes between the foes and friends of moving pictures that give “food for the enemy … the censor, critic, and moralizer,” on the one hand, and “those possessed of clear sight, a calm, well trained mind, sound and balanced judgment, [who] present opportunities for searching after facts … [which] points to singular lessons in the social order of things.”38 These characterizations of the mind and ways of describing the social realm point to a logic of reform that is systematic and analytical rather than moralizing and judgmental. The reference to the “social order of things” also implicates this distinction in an environmental approach to reform, which, as Paul Boyer describes, was focused on the causes of social problems and the need to change social conditions rather than moralistic and coercive strategies of reform.39 

In her discussion of genre films during the transitional period, Bowser notes that Louis Reeves Harrison, an influential staff writer for Moving Picture World, commented in 1913 on new trends in filmmaking, including sociological films, that departed from formulaic acting and clichéd plots. For Harrison this development was associated with directors’ views of their audiences as more intelligent and with the dissociation of moving pictures from cheap amusement. As Harrison himself elaborates in a 1913 article entitled “What's New?,” these new trends are setting the stage for rethinking the meaning of “amusement” away from “cheap amusement” and the logic of distraction (“the old sense was to prevent the tedium of idleness”) to “amusement” as “absorbed thought” or “entertainment that is thought-stimulating.”40 In relation to this goal, Harrison highlights the use of formal devices such as symbolism, which enables spectators to reflect on hidden meanings and to develop an understanding of human nature. A key aspect of Harrison's analysis of these new trends, moreover, is that sociological films are connected to new fields of knowledge. “Sociological stories are in high favor,” he notes, along with the assertion that new features in preparation reveal a “strong leaning toward investigating the laws regulating human society and those of our development.”41 

In this formulation, Harrison does not simply use “sociological” as a moniker for social problems in films. He invokes the construction of the social in the disciplinary fields of sociology (“laws regulating human society”) and psychology (“and those [laws] of our development”). That is, for Harrison innovations in formal storytelling incorporated modern and systematic ways of analyzing society and the individual that were circulating more broadly. Related to these broader frameworks and in keeping with his argument about amusement as a thought-provoking activity, Harrison characterizes a new spectatorial involvement in these films as one involving a “comprehensive sympathy,” an especially relevant formulation in the context of my arguments in this essay. He uses this concept to characterize an engagement with characters who are struggling between “base desires and finer ideals,” which is linked to the use of symbolism in films and notably to characters who become a “symbol of self-struggle.”42 The applicability of comprehensive sympathy to the spectator's experience of the poverty shot in Shoes is striking in this context, since the shot visualizes the struggle going on in Eva between her poverty and her need. This struggle is later implicated in her demoralization, and at the end of the film, in her fantasy construction of two more ideal scenarios in which she is, first, the girlfriend of a respectable suitor, and second, an upper-class and carefree woman at a party in her home along with other members of her family.

Indeed, Harrison's concept of comprehensive sympathy has a number of implications. Most directly, as suggested above, it refers to character motivations in which characters’ struggles are not simply plot driven but informed by larger issues of human and social development. Are characters content to be the product of their environment (Eva, Mamie, Owen), or do they aspire to a “finer ideal” (Eva in the fantasy scenarios, Mamie as a factory inspector, Owen carrying on the settlement work of Marie)? “Comprehensive” for Harrison also means engendering a more complex activity on the part of the spectator, including a “curiosity,” as “a desire to go further into the hidden meaning of the presentation,” which includes symbols as they reveal aspects of the social situations in which characters struggle. Sympathy in this formulation is based on an “appeal to universal interest,” which includes the fact that “‘what engaged the mind’ must be modified to suit the fundamental emotions of the people.” Themes of current interest point to the larger strategy of “thought-stimulating” amusement, and each generation determines what counts as meaningful and what will resonate with them.43 Harrison's comments support Madeline Matz's observation that Harrison enjoined scriptwriters to be sensitive to the “moods of the people.”44 In this case, the comment gestures to the changing reform environment.

Finally, a comprehensive sympathy involves social understanding. Harrison comments on the virtue of screen over stage plays because screenplays “broaden our view by showing how excusable other people are for differing from our pet ideals.”45 That is, the new mode of spectating means seeing people in a different way from one's usual prejudices or assumptions. Harrison's institutional context is the film industry, and he is championing a formally sophisticated and thematically timely moving picture. At the same time, his concept of comprehensive sympathy is discursively affiliated with other institutional sites, reform contexts such as social settlements, and enunciating subjects, namely reformers and academics.

More to the point, sympathy was a sociological concept. While formal film imperatives are paramount to Harrison's analysis, he uses comprehensive sympathy in ways that are linked (epistemologically rather than intentionally or explicitly) to sympathy as it was used by Jane Addams to describe an important intervention in practical reform associated with the Progressive Era and by Charles Horton Cooley, a University of Michigan sociologist who also had intellectual ties to Addams. To state this connection in a Foucauldian way, the concept of sympathy involved the “mutual functioning” of discourses. This connection provides a historical logic for making a claim about historical spectatorship associated with sociological films in this essay.


Harrison's use of the term “sociological” in particular invites an investigation of its connection to the emerging field of sociology, which was characterized by a strong connection to social reform during this period. A mark of this connection was the fact that social reformers and sociologists alike published articles in the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) during the period; sociologists reviewed the published studies of social reformers in the journal; and a number of the sociologists writing in AJS were affiliated with the social settlement house Hull House, located in an immigrant neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Among those writing in AJS were Addams, a major figure in Progressive Era reform, and Florence Kelley, who was the first woman factory inspector and cofounder and secretary of the anti-sweatshop organization the National Consumers’ League.

Contributors to AJS also included early women participant observer sociologists who wrote about the working conditions of women firsthand, namely Annie Marion MacLean, who in 1899 worked in a department store for two weeks, and Amy Tanner, who in 1907 worked as a waitress. And finally, AJS included articles and reviews by sociologists such as Charles Ellwood, who wrote Sociology in Its Psychological Aspects (1912), W. I. Thomas, who wrote The Unadjusted Girl (1923) on female delinquency, and Cooley, who theorized social knowledge in terms of sympathy as opposed to pity or compassion. It is not simply that these individuals were publishing and reviewing one another's work in the AJS; they were in conversation. This conversation has a wider currency in terms of the interventionist nature of sociology and the investment of social reform in social facts. Sociological films, in their own way, were part of this broader formation of reform.

Moreover, comprehensive sympathy in Harrison's formulation is a parallel concept to social sympathy in the realm of social reform and in the field of sociology. “Sympathetic knowledge” was how Addams described the best practices of reformers. Addams was strongly identified with the social settlement movement and especially Hull House, which she cofounded. The settlement movement itself was associated with middle-class reformers, often college-educated women, who were living in poor neighborhoods in residential houses where they offered a range of social services to the local population and, as neighbors, had a close understanding of them. By 1914 there were four hundred settlements in the United States.46 

The concept of sympathetic knowledge developed out of the relationship between settlement workers and their constituencies and is similar to Thomas's analysis of the culture of delinquent girls. In 1899 in the Atlantic Monthly, Addams characterized the insights of a social settlement approach in a critique of charity visitors who went to people's homes using moralizing categories to make judgments about who qualified for relief based on the norm of “industrial virtues.” According to this moral compass, poverty was “synonymous with vice and laziness.”47 By contrast, settlement houses and scientific charity efforts under the influence of sociology engaged in the systematic collection of data and a careful attention to ways of living among immigrant and working-class groups (or subcultural practices, as they would now be described) that were at odds with or indifferent to those from other class backgrounds.

In keeping with this approach, settlements also targeted specific reforms that affected immigrant neighbors, for example garbage collection, and they offered services to the community, including classes in baby care and civics as well as theatrical groups, a library, and meeting rooms for trade unionists. In her article, Addams sketches out an approach to charity that is neither moralistic nor “pseudo-scientific,” both of which stress negative action. Instead, she argues that “the accumulation of knowledge and the holding of convictions must finally result in the application of that knowledge and those convictions to life itself” through which “an appeal to the sympathies [is] so severe that all the knowledge in the possession of the visitor is continually applied [and] has reasonably a greater chance for an ultimate comprehension.”48 In this characterization, Addams stresses that sympathy precedes social amelioration and that the application of knowledge, not the isolated accumulation of knowledge, is the goal. She also notes that a deep commitment to understanding the meaning of social relations and practices in immigrant groups (“an appeal to the sympathies so severe”) means that the application of knowledge becomes a matter of second nature (“all the knowledge in the possession of the visitor is continually applied”). This approach results in a deep understanding of the social situation (“an ultimate comprehension”). As Addams also argues, “Collecting data in sociology may mean sorrow and perplexity and a pull upon one's sympathies,” which is to say that in the application of knowledge, data and sympathy are constitutively linked.49 This relational and situated way of understanding the social realm was implicated in a gendering of knowledge that was associated with settlement houses. While this approach was certainly not immune from class misunderstandings, its goals for reform were practical and public spirited.50 

Addams developed this point further in her speech “Charity and Social Justice,” delivered to the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in St. Louis in 1910, and in her book on prostitution, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912), which was also serialized in McClure's Magazine. As she describes it in the latter, “Sympathetic knowledge is the only way of approach to any human problem, and the line of least resistance into the jungle of human wretchedness must always be through that region which is most thoroughly explored, not only by the information of the statistician, but by sympathetic understanding.”51 Addams goes on to contrast a sentimental approach in the perspective of moralistic charity workers with sympathetic understanding associated with analyzing the fallen woman in terms of “the reaction of experience upon personality.” Reading this quote through her earlier formulation about charity, sympathetic understanding is an orientation to the subjects of reform activity that brings about a knowledge of social situations in their particularity rather than through the broad strokes of moral categories. It incorporates social facts in order to illuminate an environmental understanding of social problems, which analyzes how experience shapes personality.52 Statistics provide meaningful information but are not useful in isolation from the social situations from which they are drawn.

Dorothy Ross discusses an important feature of this approach to social reform, which develops out of a “language of domesticity.” Rather than invoking a “separate spheres” argument in which women's domestic culture is idealized, however, Ross emphasizes how this language served as “a medium of social knowledge, that is, as a language that conveyed and promoted certain ways of understanding society.”53 Ross discusses the significance of a practical/female and theoretical/male distinction that subtended practical reform and sociology proper. As she argues, settlement work was not simply the precursor to social work but the practical arm of sociology. Craig Calhoun also discusses the close connection between the early discipline of sociology in the United States and “ameliorative social reform” during this period.54 Social sympathy is part of what Ross identifies as a “gendered conception of knowledge.”55 From the perspective of the kind of knowledge Addams was advocating associated with settlements, Ross notes, “Sociological knowledge was interpretive, socially situated, relational, warranted by personal experience, and gendered.”56 As Mary Jo Deegan also explains, Addams worked within a “sociological network” of male sociologists at the University of Chicago; she was considered a sociologist by other academics outside the Chicago school; and she was referred to as a sociologist by the popular press.57 

Bearing in mind Calhoun's analysis of early academic sociology, Addams's arguments resonate with work by Cooley, who developed the concept of sympathy as a way of understanding social relations. In Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) he argues that

the growth of personal ideas through intercourse … implies a growing power of sympathy, of entering into and sharing the minds of other persons. To converse with another, through words, looks, or other symbols, means to have more or less understanding or communion with him, to get on common ground and partake of his ideas and sentiments. If one uses sympathy … it denotes the sharing of any mental state that can be communicated and has not the special implication of pity or other “tender emotion” that it commonly carries in ordinary speech.58 

Cooley's focus on social interaction is significant here as a theoretical grounding of Addams's practical social ethic in the relationship of reformers to reform subjects.59 

Finally, the sociological practice of participant observation was a way of enacting sympathy in sociological investigations. In 1907 Amy Tanner published in AJS her observations on her experience of working as a waitress. She describes both the tedium of the job and the inability of the supervisor, Mrs. Jones, to understand tedium:

Mrs. Jones [the mistress in charge] was not a harsh or cruel woman. She was soft-spoken and in many respects fair-minded…. Her fault … [was in] a total failure to put herself in our place. She honestly did not know that we worked thirteen hours a day until I told her….

I think she never tried to imagine the state of feeling which work for so many hours brings about, nor could she have done so if she tried. That background of ache and lassitude so changes the values of life that I believe something of a gulf will always exist between the woman who has and the woman who has not possessed it. But Mrs. Jones did not even try to imagine it….

This mistress, then, sinned chiefly in inability to imagine; and it is the sin that I have found in most of the mistresses with whom I have talked before and since this experience.60 

Remembering Cooley's description of sympathy, Mrs. Jones is unable to establish a “common ground” with the waitresses in her charge and to “partake of [their] ideas and sentiments.” Mrs. Jones is the negative example of the positive example of Tanner as a participant observer. As Tanner analyzes it, her work as a waitress gave her an insight into how to understand the problematic working conditions experienced by those she was observing. The inability “to imagine” on the part of Mrs. Jones bespoke a lack of social imagination grounded in sympathy, namely, putting oneself in the circumstances of others in the manner of a sociological participant observer. Dramatic sociological films do something similar by situating characters within their social environments, asking spectators to understand those circumstances, and then depicting character transformations (for better or worse) as a response to those environments.

Beyond the fact of institutional connections between the film industry and philanthropic groups through sponsored films, comprehensive understanding as a new mode of thoughtful spectatorship is akin to sympathetic understanding as a new mode of progressive reform. Discursive affiliations between practical reform, sociology, and film industry discourse, moreover, point to a similar mode of engagement in social problems, whether those points of contact were in situ in real neighborhoods and slums, in academic theories about social relations, or in filmic representations. Producing social sympathy was also central to reform publicity of the period. Reform publicity methods were a concrete institutional site of exhibition for sociological films in the 1910s and extended the meaning of those films into pathways of social activism.


Sociological films were part of an arsenal of diverse and sophisticated publicity methods used by reformers in large exhibits on industrial and civic welfare issues during this period. Living tableaux of sweatshop work, posters and multimedia displays (referred to as “screens”) on child labor, live demonstrations of infant care, food preparation, and pottery making at Hull House, mechanical and interactive devices, and moving pictures were all used to inform the public. Moving pictures were such an accepted part of reform publicity that diagrams of the layout of exhibits in large halls included a specific area designated for motion pictures.

One example of this layout was published in Anna Louise Strong's Child-Welfare Exhibits: Types and Preparation (1915). As indicated in the caption, it is a “typical floor plan of a child-welfare exhibit (held in Rochester)” and shows a large area for “motion pictures” occupying one side of the space along with designated areas for various subjects in the exhibit (fig. 6).61 Adjacent to the hall for screening films are spaces for displays on recreation and clubs and settlements as well as a library. This grouping puts in close proximity various ways of occupying leisure time. The fact of a dedicated space for motion pictures in the diagram gives them an equivalent status to other displays as an educational and engaging method of publicizing reform topics. It also suggests that moving pictures, like other exhibits, have the capacity to impart specific knowledge about social problems and methods of ameliorating them reinforced by the subjects represented in the floor plan.

This “typical floor plan of child-welfare exhibit” in Anna Louise Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits: Types and Preparation (1915), includes a room for motion picture exhibition. Courtesy Internet Archive.
This “typical floor plan of child-welfare exhibit” in Anna Louise Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits: Types and Preparation (1915), includes a room for motion picture exhibition. Courtesy Internet Archive.

The Child Welfare Exhibit in Chicago in 1911, which was attended by 263,000 people, showed films by Edison, Selig-Polyscope, and Essanay.62 It was held in a major convention and exhibition arena, the Chicago Coliseum. As suggested by a photograph of the center of the Coliseum, the scale of the venue and the size of the assembled crowd were impressive (fig. 7). Various exhibit stalls are visible along the back wall, a stage for performances is situated in the middle of the arena, a huge crowd looks to the camera to mark the occasion of documenting the exhibit, and several large American flags hang from the ceiling, reinforcing the civic importance of the event.63 As a reception context for sociological and welfare films, this space reinforces the idea of a secular spectator.

Civic space: crowds of people at the Chicago Welfare Exhibit at the Chicago Coliseum, May 11–25, 1911. Courtesy the Chicago History Museum.
Civic space: crowds of people at the Chicago Welfare Exhibit at the Chicago Coliseum, May 11–25, 1911. Courtesy the Chicago History Museum.

In 1913 moving pictures were shown in an adjoining hall to the Child Welfare Exhibit in Lexington, Kentucky, organized by Julia Lathrop, director of the Children's Bureau, Department of Labor. As an illustration of “human conservation,” the exhibit was part of the first environmental conservation exhibit in the United States.64 Newspapers noted that the films “were expected to be a very popular attraction” and would include those loaned by the Edison company such as “‘At the Threshold of Life,’ ‘Children Who Labor,’ ‘Charlie's Reform,’ ‘The Awakening of John Bond,’” and others on Hull House activities and “very many other subjects [on] child labor, tuberculosis, pure milk, household sanitation, birth registration, oral hygiene—in fact, on every subject which pertains of child welfare.”65 More generally, as Addams observed with regard to the Chicago Industrial Exhibit in 1907 (whose materials do not indicate that it included moving pictures), publicity methods aimed “to make us realize the conditions that surround us, to reveal them as they are.”66 Like moving pictures, tableaux, lantern slides, and graphic presentations showed scenes such as the insides of factories, which were otherwise unavailable to the public except for those who worked there.

The connection between revealing social conditions and the approach of sympathetic understanding in these publicity methods was reinforced by an address to spectators/viewers that enjoined them as citizens to do something about social problems. A moving picture hall was also pictured in a diagram of the layout of the Springfield Survey in 1914 and was included in the category of “live exhibits” along with the “Playhouse” and a “summary” room. The summary room was a designated area for public discussion regarding the entire exhibit and was positioned at the end of a “one way” flow plan near the exit along with the question box and literature area (fig. 8).67 The summary room was an open space with chairs where exhibit attendees could gather to ask questions, offer suggestions, and hear accounts of how to follow up on the problems illustrated. That is, discussion about the social issues raised at the conference was built into the structure of the exhibit.

Floor plan for the “one way” system of the Springfield Survey Exhibition, with designated areas for motion pictures and a space for discussion (the “summary” room) near the exit. Courtesy Internet Archive.
Floor plan for the “one way” system of the Springfield Survey Exhibition, with designated areas for motion pictures and a space for discussion (the “summary” room) near the exit. Courtesy Internet Archive.

Strong also describes a number of exhibits that directly engaged viewers. She notes that several child welfare exhibits included a placard near the exits of their stalls that asked, “Who is to blame for the conditions here shown?” Viewers were invited to pull a nearby string “to find out,” whereupon a mirror appeared that showed the face of the person pulling the string. Another display on the cycle of poverty associated with child labor showed a wheel divided into segments labeled “child labor, unskilled labor, low wages, poverty.” The wheel was partly positioned behind a wall so that each segment appeared separately. As the viewer turned the wheel, each stage was revealed, reinforcing the logic of an integrated cycle of conditions.68 Commenting on a display in Boston in 1910, Addams described a miniature guillotine that fell every ten seconds to show the rate of industrial accidents in the United States.69 The living and interactive nature of the displays explicitly engaged exhibit attendees through a didactic address that asked them to perform an understanding of social problems and confront their own responsibility for social change. As the placard that exposed each person's face in the mirror makes clear, the didactic address in reform publicity extended to an explicit injunction to eschew indifference and ignorance and thereby take action. The jolt of seeing one's own face in the mirror was presumably a challenge to complacency.70 

This link between social sympathy as knowledgeable understanding and social activism ranged from how to use social services in the city, to how to contact specific groups (such as the NCLC, who were campaigning for particular reforms), to joining reform organizations and participating in their struggles. Strong describes a display in the philanthropy section of several child welfare exhibits entitled “What to Do,” which consisted of a large electric wall chart in which “the spectator is instructed to ‘press the button to find out’ where to go” if one was interested in adopting children, reporting cruelty to children, or obtaining aid. A full two-page chart entitled “Information Desk” in The Survey in 1913 listed forty-nine contact organizations sorted according to topics such as child labor, tuberculosis, vocational education, women in industry, working women/women's trade unions, evening clubs for girls, how to start social centers, recreation, charity organization, Southern Sociological Congress (“a clearing house for Southern social forces”), remedial loans, Negro and race problems, immigration, labor legislation, and settlements. As suggested on the second page, topics are identified in bold print, contact information for the relevant organization associated with that topic is noted, the organization's publication and other relevant reading material is indicated, and membership details are given (fig. 9).71 

Practical civics: the second page of a two-page chart, “Information Desk,” in The Survey, April 19, 1913. Courtesy Internet Archive.
Practical civics: the second page of a two-page chart, “Information Desk,” in The Survey, April 19, 1913. Courtesy Internet Archive.

As indicated at the top of page, readers of The Survey were encouraged to contact these organizations for free information, which did not require membership, and “correspondence” with these organizations was “invited.” The chart could be used both by citizens who wanted to be more informed and by those who wanted to become members of the organizations listed. In a gentle incentive to joining, the column noted that “members are kept closely in touch with the work which each organization is doing.” Organizations included ones that sponsored Edison sociological films including the NCLC, the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, and the Department of Recreation, Russell Sage Foundation. These examples point to how citizens could participate in developing their sympathetic understanding along a continuum of forms of liberal activism.

Interactivity, engagement, and activism were reinforced through the practice of using volunteer “explainers” for these exhibits. Explainers oriented exhibit attendees to the facts and issues in displays and encouraged discussion. As Strong comments, “Explainers furnish the living element in an exhibit.” Their presence mitigated “aimlessly wandering crowds” by focusing attention “on special points” and “correct[ing] mistaken impressions.”72 There were almost fifteen hundred volunteer explainers at the Chicago exhibit in 1911. Reading between the lines of the handbooks for these events, it is clear that a large proportion of explainers were trained women volunteers. In preparation, explainers at the 1911 exhibit attended a series of lectures given by Jane Addams and Mrs. Emmons Blaine, the chairperson of fourteen section committees, and a woman also supervised each of these committees. Explainers also participated in a special viewing of the overall exhibit “to study the screens, models, and demonstrations and [take advantage of] individual instruction from the chairmen [sic] of these fourteen committees.”73 As an indication of the social mix of the citizens attending the exhibit, the explainers spoke fifteen languages in addition to English. Functioning like a political version of docents in museums, they reinforced the educative function of exhibits, acting as intermediaries between statistical facts and other information represented in charts and panels and scale models and interactive living displays. Strong noted, “A spectator remembers the things which he discusses.”74 

These exhibits had a lot in common with the settlement movement's view of reform, not only from the point of view of a practical approach but also in terms of women's involvement. There is a sense that many of these exhibits were women-run and that volunteer labor extended well beyond the work of explainers. The Illinois Woman's Trade Union League, the Illinois Branch of the Consumers’ League, and the Chicago Woman's Club in addition to Hull House were among the cooperating societies and institutions associated with the 1907 Chicago Industrial Exhibit, and a number of women representing these and other organizations were speakers during the week of the event. Mrs. Cyrus H. McCormick Jr. (née Edith Rockefeller), “a generous Chicago citizen,” paid for the materials from the New York Child Welfare Exhibit to be brought to Chicago in 1911 for its exhibit, whose staging required two thousand volunteers.75 Their labor extended to tacking bunting onto the entrances of displays, which is illustrated in a photograph of three women standing on ladders and a crate and a fourth woman standing beside them holding a hammer in front of a display on the “Public Library” (fig. 10).76 The staged nature of the photograph is notable for the all-female crew and the sense of their can-do attitude, which informed both this instance of manual labor and the organization of and participation in the exhibit more generally.

Women's civic labor: hanging fabric near the “Public Library” display at the Chicago Welfare Exhibit at the Chicago Coliseum, May 11–25, 1911. Courtesy the Chicago History Museum.
Women's civic labor: hanging fabric near the “Public Library” display at the Chicago Welfare Exhibit at the Chicago Coliseum, May 11–25, 1911. Courtesy the Chicago History Museum.

The committee on exhibits at another event, the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1914, included officials from the Federation of Women's Clubs, the Jacksonville Women's Club, and the Parent Teachers’ Association. Strong suggests the range of women's voluntary contributions when she notes that “this committee designated the different women's organizations, which, under the direction of the physicians in charge, prepared exhibits on baby feeding, clothing, toys, and sleeping and bathing arrangements.”77 The only paid worker for this conference was the organizer, and expenses were largely confined to printing costs. For the Springfield Survey, voluntary labor included “the making of models and mechanical devices, much of the art work, special stories for the newspapers, clerical work in the office and the taking of photographs.”78 The cooperation of different participating community groups in these events had a political organizing function for those involved. As Strong notes, “Under the pressure of a coming exhibit factional discussion must be brought to some conclusion; the bits of knowledge, more or less vague before, must be welded into a community program.”79 

Reform publicity methods enacted Addams's approach to reform as sympathetic understanding. In her discussion of publicity methods for the 1907 Industrial Exhibit, Addams explained: “To put upon the stage the conclusions of economic investigations, the tragedies and sacrifices now buried in reports, census returns and technical articles that they may be a part of our consciousness of current industry…. All to the end that industry may become a human interest, an intelligible experience, that we may have some knowledge of its mighty operations and attach its affairs to our sense of moral obligation.”80 Facts “buried in reports, census returns and technical articles” have an immediate impact on public opinion if they become available through human interest, which makes them intelligible and available for social activism. Remembering Ross's description of gendered sociological knowledge associated with settlement work as “interpretive, socially situated, relational, warranted by personal experience,” these displays made statistical knowledge meaningful by situating it within social frameworks, which included the social contexts of the facts deployed as well as the exhibits themselves as social events. They also engaged personal experience through an affective connection with viewers associated with a direct address.

What did publicity reform mean for moving pictures? Overall, moving pictures had a place in a continuum of publicity methods that revealed social conditions and addressed spectators as citizens. Situating films alongside these other forms of publicity as I do in this essay foregrounds an experience of them as part of a series of performative displays and exhibits that, like the category “sociological” itself, incorporated fact and fiction, instruction and amusement, statistics/social evidence and dramatization, a didactic address and a direct experience, whether living or on celluloid. In this context, films were not isolated visual texts. Moreover, welfare exhibits and displays that enjoined citizens to participate in social change reinforced and offered practical directions for social activism related to the representation of social problems in the films.

The story lines of the films themselves, moreover, can be read in terms of strategies of sympathetic understanding. Sisters All, one of the films in the list of sociological films noted earlier, illustrates the social imagination required of participant observers and of spectators of sociological films alike, namely the experience of being in someone else's shoes. In Sisters All Helen and Hattie, two daughters of Sergius, “a garment maker,” agree with protestors at their father's factory who are angry about a cut in their wages. In solidarity, the daughters go to live in a crowded tenement with Olga and Vera, Russian sisters who work at the factory. When the two daughters bring their sewing to the factory for payment, their father relents and consents to the demands of the women workers. The daughters agree to return home after “rejoicing” with the female workers in the factory.81 The film (from its description in Moving Picture World) appears to literalize social sympathy by putting Sergius's daughters in the situation of women working in his factory in a version of a cross-class alliance based on sympathetic understanding both as direct experience and as knowledge. Indeed, the plot summary, at least, points to the outcome of social activism.

To conclude, I return to the question of how the overly didactic and hyperbolic qualities of the hand of poverty, the spectral figure, and the scriptural passage are historical statements. Gregory S. Jackson analyzes a Protestant homiletics at the heart of photographs by Jacob Riis of slum dwellers in the 1890s, which are otherwise viewed in the tradition of documentary photography and sometimes criticized for representing the poor as victims. Jackson draws on textual elements in the photographs themselves as well as the fact that they were exhibited in lantern slide performances in which Riis was the lecturer. Jackson convincingly argues that Riis's performances invoked a Protestant “spiritual sight” on the part of spectators and engaged them in an “aesthetics of immediacy,” which, like the earlier pedagogy of Henry Ward Beecher, moved away from social charity and aimed to “stimulate active engagement with social problems.”82 The performances used evocative language to set the scene of the slums, and drew on a homiletic tradition of allegorical tropes and religious tableaux to instill a moral responsibility for poverty in spectators. These spectators were enjoined to do something about poverty as a means of achieving personal salvation. Jackson notes that the “hermeneutic training” in reading allegory on the part of spectators predisposed them to read these images as a social lesson in honing their own spiritual sight. My argument in this essay is that sociological films in the 1910s did something similar by replacing individual salvation with civic obligation for a secular spectator.83 Environmentalism as a sociological approach and verisimilitude as a visual style supplant religious tableaux and allegorical scenes in Riis's photographs; and the performance of sociological films in the context of living displays at exhibits and conferences encouraged a civic sight in keeping with a sociological analysis of social conditions and social facts.

In the context of this argument, the didactic and hyperbolic shots in the three films noted earlier are truly transitional. Or, to be more precise, they are residual figures of an earlier formation that carry the memory of a religious approach to reform and also point to an emerging secular one. In Shoes, Eva lying in a crowded bed visualizes the social facts of her environment in an image of her unconcerned father whose indolence strains the family finances and in the hand of poverty whose meaning is reinforced by myriad other details of social conditions in the film (video 1). At the same time, the emotional resonance of the hand of poverty bears the trace of a performative and religious aesthetics of immediacy associated with lantern slide culture.84 

Clip from Shoes (dir. Lois Weber), 1916. Courtesy EYE and Milestone Film.

Clip from Shoes (dir. Lois Weber), 1916. Courtesy EYE and Milestone Film.
Clip from Shoes (dir. Lois Weber), 1916. Courtesy EYE and Milestone Film.

As Foucault remarks, the historical statement is “a strange event.”85 It is unique but also linked in a residual way to statements that preceded it and in a transformative way to statements that follow it. In this essay, I have stressed that “sociological” had a very particular formation in relation to social reform during the early twentieth century, one that is reiterated in an eclectic and fluid meaning of the term as it applied to some films during the transitional period. In the case of the film industry, sociological as a descriptor eventually lost both its epistemological force and its direct connection to activism associated with reform publicity practices as a context of reception for films. In the case of academic discourse, the fluid relationship between practical reform and sociology as a field of knowledge during the early twentieth century hardened into social work and sociology as distinct realms of practice; and sociology in the university became more invested in statistics and less directly tied to reform organizations. In transition, too, is sympathy as a way of understanding a social and civic spectatorial mode informed by a female culture of reform and a gendered way of knowing the social.


Thank you to Mark Lynn Anderson for his interest in my work, and to Mark as editor and to the external reviewer of this essay for their helpful suggestions. Thanks to Dennis Doros of Milestone Films, who generously provided the still and video clip from Shoes, and to Angela Hoover of the Chicago History Museum for her assistance with obtaining photographs of the Chicago exhibit. Thanks also go to my mother, Carole Balides, who happily listened to my enthusiasms about this material, contributed her own insights, and always supported me.
For extended discussions of silent social problem films, see Kay Sloan, The Loud Silents: Origins of the Social Problem Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988); and Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Prejudice, Crime (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). While Regeneration falls within the logic of dramatic sociological film, Brownlow points out that Raoul Walsh, who directed it, and even King Vidor, who directed The Crowd (1928), did not think of these films in this way. Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence, xxiii. For later discussions of social problems films see Siegfried Kracauer, “Those Movies with a Message,” Harper's Magazine 196 (June 1948): 567–72; and Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, “The Study of Man: Two Social Scientists View ‘No Way Out’: The Unconscious vs. the ‘Message’ in Anti-Bias Film,” Commentary 10 (July–December 1950): 388–91.
Tom Gunning analyzes a similar phenomenon in the tableau shot of the breadline in A Corner in Wheat (1909), which he argues has a “paradigmatic role” associated with a narrative commentary on the action, especially through D. W. Griffith's use of contrast editing between a breadline and a dinner party in the home of the wheat speculator. Gunning argues that the static poses of characters in the shot give it an “excessive” quality that draws attention to its status as “an image pregnant with meaning” (249). The poverty shot in Shoes is very similar. Tom Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1991), esp. 245–49.
Rather than invoking an argument about excess as a mark of ideological contradiction along the lines of Cahiers du cinéma's symptomatic text, I am more interested in how these shots are historical, particularly in terms of how Michel Foucault talks about discursive formations and historical statements as epistemological, as I discuss below. For a discussion of archaeology as a particular approach to writing history, see Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
Lee Grieveson, Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Karen Eifler, “Between Attraction and Instruction: Lantern Shows in British Poor Relief,” Early Popular Visual Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2010): 363–84.
Jennifer Horne stressed the importance of women's clubs in relation to film culture in her presentation “Coming to Terms: Political Socialization and Better Films Workers,” Eighth International Women and the Silent Screen conference, Pittsburgh, September 2015. Also see her entry in this issue of Feminist Media Histories.
As Foucault argues with regard to an archaeology or general history, “The problem now is to constitute series: to define the elements proper to each series, to fix its boundaries, to reveal its own specific type of relations, to formulate its laws, and beyond this, to describe the relations between series.” Foucault, “Introduction,” in The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, 7–8. Foucault makes it clear that he is not arguing for a “plurality of histories” (10), that is, different kinds of history. His key terms, “plurality” and “discontinuity,” put the focus on multiple and dispersed relations between historical statements that make up a particular series, including the formation of discursive objects and concepts, institutional modes and positions of speaking subjects, and themes or theoretical strategies.
Or, as Foucault states, “forms of coexistence, their succession, their mutual functioning, their reciprocal determination, and their independent or correlative transformations.” Ibid., 29.
See Grieveson's analysis of Traffic in Souls (1913), which points to the imbrication of education and entertainment in the same film, in his Policing Cinema, 151–91.
I first came across these Edison titles and the film industry's use of the designation of “sociological” in Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), esp. 45, 169. See Marina Dahlquist's work on health films, in particular “Health Entrepreneurs: American Screen Practices in the 1910s,” in Screen Culture and the Social Question 1880–1914, ed. Ludwig Vogl-Bienek and Richard Crangle (New Barnet, England: John Libbey, 2014), 13748.
Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915, vol. 2, 43.
For a list of categories, see Rev. E. Boudinot Stockton, “The Picture in the Pulpit,” Moving Picture World (hereafter MPW), March 8, 1913, 983–84. For the debate about categorization, see W. Stephen Bush, “Educational Catalogues—I,” MPW, October 25, 1913, 357; W. Stephen Bush, “Educational Catalogues—II,” MPW, November 8, 1913, 589; W. Stephen Bush, “Educational Catalogues—III,” MPW, November 15, 1913, 713; Rev. E. Boudinot Stockton, “Cataloguing Motion Pictures,” MPW, December 27, 1913, 1554.
See especially Stockton, “Cataloguing Motion Pictures,” 1554; and Bush, “Educational Catalogues—III,” 713.
Bush, “Educational Catalogues—III,” 713.
“Education with Pleasure,” MPW, December 23, 1911, 974.
“The Moving Picture Educator,” MPW, August 19, 1916, 1254.
There are numerous examples of this use even in one newspaper. A review written by Edwin Markham, Judge Ben B. Lindsay, and George Creel, entitled “Sociological,” of an important study of child labor, Children in Bondage (1914), appeared in the Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1914, sec. III, p. 25. A report on college women who set up a model home of a New York workingman's family at the World's Fair has the subtitle “Sociological Problems Worked Out at the World's Fair.” “Women and Home: Toilers’ Homes,” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1893, 14. The term extended to an analysis of efficiency to overcome “ignorance, poverty, sickness, inefficient toil,” and disparities of wealth. See “More Joy in Store: If Rev. Dr. Smith's Ideas Are Followed Out: Interesting Paper on Sociological Problems Read at Battle Creek Philanthropic Congress,” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1897, 2. Students from Pomona College on a weeklong field trip staying “in the heart of the slums” in Los Angeles were called “sociological students.” They visited and took notes on “jails, Courthouses, large factories, packing-houses, tenements and asylums” under the direction of the sociologist Professor G. S. Sumner. This use is especially interesting in light of the pedagogical function of moving pictures as replacing field trips, as I discuss below in this essay. “Dip in Slums: Sociological Students Return to Claremont after Week of Investigations,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1908, sec. 2, p. 10.
Louis Reeves Harrison, “New Fields,” MPW, December 14, 1912, 1057. He also notes that the Edison sociological dramas are a useful if preliminary start, and he criticizes the Vitagraph sociological films for dealing with social problems too timidly because the studio is overly concerned about offending a Puritan code of morals.
See Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, City Welfare Aids and Opportunities (London: Forgotten Books, 2015), originally published as Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy Bulletin, no. 13 (October 1911).
“Education with Pleasure,” 974.
André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema?, vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 15. This rereading of Bazin is indebted to Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
Amanda R. Keeler, “John Collier, Thomas Edison, and the Educational Promotion of Moving Pictures,” in Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Public of Early Cinema, ed. Marta Braun, Charlie Keil, Rob King, Paul Moore, and Louis Pelletier (New Barnet, England: John Libbey, 2012), 117–25.
Oliver Gaycken, “The School of the Future or Ganot's Physics?: Edison's Foray into Educational Cinema,” in Beyond the Screen, 144.
Winthrop D. Lane, “Edison vs. Euclid: Has He Invented a Moving-Stairway to Learning: A Symposium with an Introduction by Winthrop D. Lane,” Survey 30, no. 23 (September 6, 1913): cover and 681–95. Thanks to Amanda R. Keeler for this reference and see her article cited above for a discussion of it. The contributions in The Survey were responses to an educational exhibit of moving pictures at Edison's laboratory.
“Education with Pleasure,” 974.
“Sociological,” MPW, April 1, 1911, 709.
W. H. Jackson, “A Sociological Study: Moving Picture Censorship Strangely Helpful in Revealing Social Conditions,” MPW, April 15, 1911, 818.
“Attracts Sociological Students,” Moving Picture News, March 23, 1912, 10.
“A Great Humanitarian,” in the column “The Moving Picture Educator,” MPW, April 20, 1912, 213. Other reports indicate that the Vermont and New Jersey State Boards of Health were using motion pictures in 1913; and in New Jersey over a nine-day period, one hundred thousand people attended lectures by Dr. Millard Knowlton on public health topics illustrated by Edison's dramatic films (The Red Cross Seal [1910] and The Awakening of John Bond [1911]) and other studios’ nonfiction films (Boil Your Water [1911] and The Fly Pest [1910]). See “Facts and Comments,” MPW, June 14, 1913, 1111.
MPW, March 8, 1913, 983; MPW, March 22, 1912, 1209; MPW, April 19, 1912, 284.
MPW, April 5, 1913, 35.
MPW, March 8, 1913, 983.
Ibid.; MPW, April 5, 1913, 35; MPW, April 26, 1913, 365.
MPW, March 8, 1913, 983; MPW, April 12, 1913, 365.
For Shoes, see MPW, August 19, 1916, 1254.
Michel Foucault, “Preface,” in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970; repr., New York: Vintage, 1994), xv. Stated otherwise, from a later commonplace perspective of the distinction between fiction and documentary, “sociological” is not coherent as a category, and it exceeds a sense of the transitional era as a period associated with a diverse array of film genres and types, some of which did not extend into the classical period. On transitional genres, see various entries in Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp, eds., American Cinema's Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
“Sociological,” MPW, April 1, 1911, 709.
W. H. Jackson, “A Sociological Study,” 818. Jackson goes on to blame the real culprits, which include lack of parental and school oversight and an increase in imitative behavior tending to mischief and evil on the part of youth.
See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), esp. 175–87.
Louis Reeves Harrison, “What's New?,” MPW, November 2, 1913, 844. I am grateful to Bowser for her reference to this article in The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915, vol. 2, 169, which has proved to be so important in my analysis. Other films mentioned by Harrison are detective stories and those showing abnormal states of mind. Simon Patten, a major economist of the period, also intervened in the critique of cheap amusements, arguing for the virtues of moving pictures and the arcade side of the street, which, he thought, encouraged a capitalist logic of abundance and repudiated previous values of restraint and discipline. See Constance Balides, “Cinema under the Sign of Money: Commercialized Leisure, Economies of Abundance, and Pecuniary Madness, 1905–1915,” in American Cinema's Transitional Era, 285–314.
Harrison, “What's New?,” 844.
Madeline F. Matz, “Louis Reeves Harrison,” in Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, ed. Richard Abel (London: Routledge, 2005), 295. Matz notes that Harrison wrote for Moving Picture World from 1908 to 1920.
Harrison, “What's New?,” 844.
See Craig Calhoun, “Sociology in America: An Introduction,” in Sociology in America: A History, ed. Craig Calhoun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 16.
Jane Addams, “The Subtle Problems of Charity,” in The Jane Addams Reader, ed. Jean Bethke Elshtain (New York: Basic, 2002), 63. Addams pointedly asks what the young, well-bred, college-educated “charity worker” who has never supported herself financially would know about these industrial virtues in a remark that criticizes a well-meaning but nevertheless hypocritical class perspective. This is not to say, however, that class privilege was absent from the notion of sympathy, as I discuss in a note below.
Ibid., 74.
Ibid., 73.
A telling incident suggests the problems of cross-class alliances. For the 1907 Chicago Industrial Exhibit, Italian immigrants were asked to be living displays of tenement labor, notably, shelling nuts at their kitchen table. The subjects of the display objected to the mess in the space of the display and started to clean up. The mother in the display was also offended that the group was being portrayed as a bad example and is quoted as saying, “No maka fun.” See “Labor Troubles Mar Uplift Show,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 12, 1907, 3; “An Unexpected Protest,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 13, 1907, 10. The subtitle of “Labor Troubles Mar Uplift Show” makes the point explicit, namely, “Sweatshop People Balk: Discover the Fact That They Are Put There as ‘Horrible Examples.’”
Jane Addams, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 11. Also in Jane Addams, “Charity and Social Justice,” North American Review 192, no. 656 (July 1910): 70.
Addams, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, 12.
Dorothy Ross, “Gendered Social Knowledge: Domestic Discourse, Jane Addams, and the Possibilities of Social Science,” in Gender and American Social Science: The Formative Years, ed. Helene Silverberg (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 236.
Calhoun, “Sociology in America: An Introduction,” 10.
In the context of an argument about the conservative implications of suffrage films, Shelley Stamp discusses the connection between idealized motherhood and “civic housekeeping,” a formulation associated with Addams's “public housekeeping,” in Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), esp. 154–94.
Ross, “Gendered Social Knowledge,” 236.
Mary Jo Deegan, Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998), 12.
Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (1902; repr., New York: Schocken, 1964), 136.
Cooley himself also makes a connection to moving pictures: “What could be more precise as a record of visible behavior than a motion picture. Yet it is not quantitative. Its precision is total, not incremental, a matter of patterns rather than minute differences in space.” Cooley's general approach of a “sympathetic participation” in social research is poised against a statistical approach. Given my argument about the connection between Harrison's comprehensive sympathy, Addams's sympathetic understanding, and Addams's own argument against statistics for their own sake, it is interesting that Cooley situates film in the midst of this opposition as an art form on the side of the case study and an organic comprehension of reality. In a very similar vein to Addams's approach, Cooley adds that “statistics of human traits” may be useful in terms of showing “mass tendencies,” but “they give us no human reality” and therefore should be “subsidiary to the study of whole persons.” Charles H. Cooley, “Case Study of Small Institutions as a Method of Research,” in Papers and Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Society, vol. 22 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 124–25. For a discussion of Cooley along these lines, which also includes the above quote about cinema, see George Steinmetz, “American Sociology before and after World War II,” in Sociology in America: A History, 330–31.
Amy Tanner, “Glimpses at the Mind of a Waitress,” American Journal of Sociology 13, no. 1 (July 1907): 53–54.
Anna Louise Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits: Types and Preparation, Miscellaneous Series 4, Bureau Publication 14 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915), 2. Strong's publication is also available from the Internet Archive and the floor plan in figure 6 is courtesy the Internet Archive. Original material is from the Boston Public Library. For another diagram of an exhibit hall indicating a designated room for moving pictures, see Handbook of the New York Child Welfare Exhibit: At the 71st Regiment Armory from January 18 to February 12, 1911 (no publication information, 1911), 16. Available from Hathi Trust Digital Library. Original material from the University of Michigan and Harvard University Libraries.
“263,000 See Child Welfare Exhibit: Chicago Show in Ten Days Exceeds New York's Total Figures for One Month,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 12, 1911, 7.
This photograph appears in a two-volume album of photographs of the exhibit. Chicago Child Welfare Exhibit Albums, 1911, vol. 1, ICHi-038508, Collection ID 1986.0427, Elizabeth McCormick Memorial Fund Photographs, Chicago History Museum.
“Child Welfare Expo Will Be Held Soon: Miss Lathrop, Head of National Bureau, Writes Letter on Exhibit,” Kalamazoo Gazette, August 24, 1913, 13.
Jane Addams, “Interpretation of Exhibit,” in Handbook of the Chicago Industrial Exhibit: At Brooke's Casino, March 11 to 17th, 1907 (publisher unknown, 1907), 21. Available from Hathi Trust Digital Library. Original material from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library.
An Effective Exhibition of a Community Survey: A Brief Description of the Springfield Survey Exhibition (New York: Department of Surveys and Exhibits, Russell Sage Foundation, 1916?), reprinted from American City 12, no. 2 (February 1915): n.p. Floor plan in figure 8 is from the Internet Archive. Original material from University of California Libraries.
Both displays are described in Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits, 35.
Addams, “Charity and Social Justice,” 76.
Thanks to Mark Lynn Anderson for his editorial comments about this display along these lines and his suggestion that I pursue the agitational implications of the mirror display for social sympathy.
“Information Desk,” Survey 30, no. 3 (April 19, 1913): 2.
Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits, 25.
The Child in the City: A Handbook of the Child Welfare Exhibit at the Coliseum, May 11–May 25, 1911 (publisher unknown, 1911), 18.
Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits, 42.
Jane Addams, “The Child Welfare Exhibit: A Foreword in Explanation,” in The Child in the City, 5.
This photograph appears in a two-volume album of photographs of the exhibit. Chicago Child Welfare Exhibit Albums, 1911, vol. 2, ICHi-092942, Collection ID 1986.0427, Elizabeth McCormick Memorial Fund Photographs, Chicago History Museum.
Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits, 15.
An Effective Exhibition of a Community Survey, n.p.
Strong, Child-Welfare Exhibits, 11.
Addams, “Interpretation of Exhibit,” 22.
“Sisters All,” MPW, March 8, 1913, 1016.
Gregory S. Jackson, “Cultivating Spiritual Sight: Jacob Riis's Virtual-Tour Narrative and the Visual Modernization of Protestant Homiletics,” Representations, no. 83 (Summer 2003): 130, 141.
I use “secular” here both as a reminder of an earlier religious spectator associated with social problem lantern slide performances and as a way of characterizing a new formation of reform discussed in this essay. While all spectators are obviously secular, I am not using the term to talk about spectatorship in general. Rather, the formulation is a way of designating spectators of sociological films in the 1910s. In addition, the use of “secular” aims to capture a sense of civic responsibility associated with the connection between social sympathy and sociology during the Progressive Era.
This is not to say that lantern slide culture was simply a pre-cinematic phenomenon or a precursor to moving pictures. As Deac Rossell argues, moving pictures emerge in an environment of lantern slide culture. See Deac Rossell, “Double Think: The Cinema and Magic Lantern Culture,” in Celebrating 1895, ed. John Fullerton (Sydney: John Libbey, 1998), 27–36. For an extended discussion of lantern slide culture and social problems, see various entries in Ludwig Vogl-Bienek and Richard Crangle, eds., Screen Culture and the Social Question, 18801914 (New Barnet, England: John Libbey, 2014).
Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, 28.