Motion picture catalogs played an important role in the early years of cinema. Early motion picture companies, following a common American business practice, made extensive use of catalogs as a means of listing and promoting their products. They also provided exhibitors with information for use in attracting customers as well as with narrative material and musical suggestions to accompany film presentations. While devices that create the illusion of movement had attracted attention in the United States and throughout the world since early in the 19th century, the commercial introduction of modern motion pictures dates from the summer of 1893 when many visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago paid to view short films in Edison's peephole kinetoscope. From that time until 1908, the American film industry experienced growth and diversification. Printed film catalogs reflect the development of the early motion picture industry from their introduction in 1894 until the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company at the end of 1908, and therefore present readers today with a rich resource for understanding these formative years.

The early motion picture industry adopted two markedly different exhibition formats. Motion pictures were either shown to individual spectators through small viewing devices such as the Edison peephole kinetoscope or to large audiences through theatrical projection. Ancestors of both modes of exhibition were popular before modern motion picture technology became available. The peephole kinetoscope and the mutoscope, which used a series of flip cards, allowed a single viewer to see pictures with the illusion of movement. These were preceded by the stereoscope, which enabled individual spectators to see photographs with the illusion of depth. Photographic images were also projected "life-size" during the second half of the 19th century by means of the magic lantern, a forerunner of the modern slide projector. Magic lantern exhibitors used slides to create elaborate screen entertainments. These exhibition formats readily incorporated motion pictures. The commercialization of motion pictures represented not simply the beginning of a new industry but also the continuation and transformation of established practices. Although individual viewing appeared first, projected motion pictures became the significant cultural form.