Guide to Motion Picture Catalogs:
The Peephole Kinetoscope

The brief glimpse of motion pictures that Thomas Edison offered those attending a lecture and demonstration at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893, was the culmination of five years of thinking and experimentation.[citation] From conception to final execution, Edison and his staff benefited from a world-wide context of technological achievements.[1] Edison's kinetoscope also reflected the inventor's determination to do "for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." He hoped to duplicate the commercial success of his phonograph, which was then attracting patrons who paid a nickel to hear a brief recording through a set of earphones. By 1892 Edison and his colleague, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, had invented a camera or "kinetograph" to take motion pictures and a peephole kinetoscope for individualized viewing of the moving images. In December 1892 Edison began construction of a motion picture studio near his West Orange laboratory. This production facility, which became known as the Black Maria, was completed in February 1893. Manufacture of kinetoscopes, however, experienced many delays. The first twenty-five machines were finally completed in January 1894 and were offered for sale in April at $250 a machine. The first kinetoscope parlor opened in New York City on the 14th of April and similar debuts in other American cities soon followed.[2]

Edison centralized most of his film-related activities in the Edison Manufacturing Company and engaged sales agents to market his kinetoscopes and films. Raff & Gammon sold Edison films and apparatus in the United States and Canada through their New York–based Kinetoscope Company. Their customers included proprietors not only of specialized kinetoscope parlors but also of phonograph parlors, arcades, hotels, bars, and restaurants. In order for these kinetoscope owners to function effectively as exhibitors, they needed film subjects to keep their own patrons entertained. By the end of 1894 Raff & Gammon had published a one-page film list, and by mid-1895 they had expanded their catalog to a four-page brochure .[3] Maguire & Baucus handled the European market through their Continental Commerce Company, which had offices in New York and London.[4]

Edison was not the sole producer of films and kinetoscopes. By early 1895 Charles Chinnock was making and selling films and marketing his own version of the kinetoscope.[5] Robert W. Paul was similarly occupied in London. At first, manufacturers of the kinetoscope believed that its individualized format for viewing, similar to that of the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph, would yield substantial, long-term income. Edison's profits from the sale of kinetoscopes alone totaled $75,000 by March 1895,[6] but soon the demand for kinetoscopes receded and profits from machine sales vanished. By November 1895 Raff & Gammon were ready to sell their business. But just when the motion picture industry seemed on the verge of collapse, projection technology introduced new commercial opportunities.


1. Gordon Hendricks, The Edison Motion Picture Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961).
2. Gordon Hendricks, The Kinetoscope: America's First Commercially Successful Motion Picture Exhibitor (New York: The Beginnings of the American Film, 1966).
3. These materials are in the Raff & Gammon papers donated to MH-BA through Terry Ramsaye. Two one-page Kinetoscope Co. bulletins (A-003, A-004), used as scrap paper and attached to other documents, survive as fragments. A four-page brochure (A-005) included in a Raff & Gammon scrapbook is marred by heavy pen marks. It was reprinted in Terry Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926), 838-839.
4. See frame B-002, B-005 and B-008. Additional information about the Continental Commerce Company's activities can be found in John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England (Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1976), 12-14.
5. For information on Chinnock's activities, see Hendricks, The Kinetoscope: America's First Commercially Successful Motion Picture Exhibitor (New York: The Beginnings of the American Film, 1966), 161-169.
6. Edison Manufacturing Company, Statements of Profit and Loss, 1893–1895, NjWOE.

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