The Perfect Order of a Canadian Crowd: Cinema in Ottawa, 1894-1896

April 18, 2017


When projected moving pictures appeared for the first time in Ottawa during the summer of 1896, they were not greeted with the sort of uncomprehending astonishment suggested by some historical accounts. Nor were they received and comprehended in the same way as might have been the case in major American or European metropolises. This study will examine the “horizon of experience” that informed the reception of cinema when it arrived in Ottawa. Among those contextual factors discussed include the city’s social fragmentation, attitudes towards leisure, experience with modern technologies such as electrical illumination and street cars, and appreciation of commercial and visual entertainments. This study will draw on primary materials, particularly newspaper reports, in order demonstrate how unique factors present in Ottawa contributed to a localized comprehension of moving pictures. In doing so, it is hoped that this thesis will demonstrate the value of local reception analyses for Canadian film studies

Introduction: “Improvement the Order of the Age”

In August 1892 Ottawa entrepreneur George Holland wrote to the Canadian federal Department of Agriculture: “With the phonograph you have an expert stenographer always at hand.”(1) The local agent for Edison’s phonograph, as well as an official Senate reporter, Holland had already succeeded in introducing phonographs into the Federal civil service in the Department of the Interior. In a later reminiscence, Holland recalls that one Senator even proposed that the phonograph be used to give the sessional prayers, thus reducing the costs of the Senate by the salary of its resident Chaplain.(2) In this particular letter, perhaps only one of many government pitches, Edison’s invention is presented as a modern innovation which could improve office efficiency. A far cry from the predominantly leisure-driven uses for the phonograph which are far more familiar to us now, the early business applications of this invention hint at the more general trend of the modernization of life.

Although ostensibly an agent of Edison’s North American Phonograph Company, Holland’s letter to the department of Agriculture was written on the letter-head of another purveyor of modernity: the Smith Premier Typewriter. George and his brother Andrew Holland also acted as the local agents for this company, publicly endorsing the machine in local and trade newspapers. Most striking about this technological crossover is the company motto printed at the top of the letter: “Improvement the Order of the Age.” Although trite by the standards of today’s advertising, the motto seems to encapsulate not only the entrepreneurial stance of the Holland Brothers, but also a high degree of institutional self-awareness. This is the sort of comment about late nineteenth century positivism one would expect from a historian or theorist, but not from participants in the history itself. The motto reveals a great deal more agency than historical actors are generally attributed with. Consider, for example, the story of the first film exhibition in Paris in December 1895 when the audience members were reported to have recoiled in terror of the oncoming train projected on the canvas in front of them. The story presupposes a naive audience unprepared for the new technology that was being presented to them, rubes knocked over by the force of technological innovation. Could they really have been so unprepared, so unsuspecting? Many historians have argued that they were not.(3) If improvement was, indeed, the order of the age, if people lived in an age of novelty, they may have been impressed, but surely not bowled over.

The project of this thesis is to examine how a particular Canadian audience was prepared for the arrival of cinema in 1896. Specifically, when the Holland Brothers brought Edison’s projected moving picture machine, the Vitascope, to Ottawa on July 21 1896, how did that local audience comprehend it? Within what context was it placed? Similar studies have been conducted in major European and American cities and found that citizens there were well prepared by many of the transformations of modern life taking place: electrification, commercialization, mass culture. But it seems unsatisfactory to assume that the citizens of a mid-sized Canadian city would have had the same experiences and reactions as those living in major metropolises.

In one sense, this thesis is a case-study, showing how conditions specific to Ottawa may have coloured its citizens’ comprehension of motion pictures. There has been little examination of the early years of cinema in Canada which could provide a methodological model for this study.(4) Two recent studies which focus on similar periods demonstrate some of the pitfalls which must be avoided. Robert Gutteridge’s Magic Moments: First 20 Years of Moving Pictures in Toronto (1894-1914) is impressive in its accumulation of details, but fails to frame this material in any sort of compelling manner. With little attention to the social or historical meaning of cinema in Toronto, Gutteridge’s study is ultimately more pedantic than insightful. At the opposite extreme is Matthew Smith’s essay, “Film Reviews and Announcements from 1896: Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.” Lacking critical distance, Smith holds up newspaper accounts of the cinema as reflecting the genuine experience of the first viewers of cinema: “All of the reviews/articles discussed in this article, and indeed every review from 1896, must be seen not only as journalism, but also as genuine audience reactions. . . . Reviewers’ perceptions, like those of their readers, were fresh and untainted by prior experience with film; reviewer and audience alike began at page one and had similar experiences.”(5) It is only through insufficient supporting research that Smith could arrive at such a conclusion. As this thesis will show, a careful examination of Ottawa inhabitants’ attitudes and experiences of technology and leisure reveal that early spectators were well prepared for the arrival of cinema.

A more helpful model of local reception studies can be found in Gregory Waller’s Main Street Amusements, an examination of the introduction and exploitation of cinema in a mid-sized American city. Here, Waller sets out to examine the exhibition and reception circumstances of Lexington, Kentucky, which set it apart from larger cities. To accomplish this, Waller broadens his object of study to include a more general contextualization of experience. Waller writes:

[M]y ambition has been to remain attentive to both the specifics of theatre design, programming policy, and marketing schemes, and also to more general questions about the fear of amusement, the filling of leisure time, the uses of high and low culture, and the public articulation of values and goals as Lexington moved into the twentieth century. This aspiration towards social history requires that the movies be seen in the context of other cheap amusements, special events, and public recreational occasions. As with all contextualizing, though, the problem - or maybe the opportunity - is deciding where to draw the line. How much is enough?(6)

For Waller, the answer to this question is to limit his contextualization to those events which appear in the “Amusements” section of the newspaper, alongside the advertisements for moving pictures. This is appropriate to his study which spans twenty years and must, necessarily, progress chronologically and avoid becoming mired in the details surrounding particular circumstances. This thesis, however, has a much less chronological structure, functioning more as the description of an historical moment than a chronicle of sequential events.

So while Waller must cut short his discussion of various contextual factors in the interest of brevity, I will examine them at greater length. In particular, this thesis will look at the social topography of Ottawa, conflicting attitudes towards leisure activities and commercialization, the popular amusements available to the city’s inhabitants, local uses of imaging devices (photography, lantern slides, etc.), and the emergence of modern technologies such as the electric light and the street railway. Contrary to a teleological history of cinema, such as Smith’s, which posits 1896 as “The Beginning”, this thesis proposes that moving pictures were comprehended by audiences as belonging to a variety of pre-existing traditions or discourses; “amusement” may certainly be one of these, but so also were popular science, educational pastimes, and electrification. Indeed, while it is convenient for Waller to confine his study to the “Amusements” column of the newspaper, that luxury is not available to this researcher. Articles and advertisements for the Vitascope, and its predecessor the Kinetoscope, appeared in all parts of Ottawa newspapers, suggesting the highly mutable nature of these inventions. On their first appearances, they were not to be pigeon-holed, but appealed to a variety of viewer situations; this thesis will try to reflect that mutability and complexity of conceptualization.

Beyond examining the context of the arrival of cinema to Ottawa, this thesis will also attempt to address the issue of Ottawa film spectators’ “modernized subjectivity”. In his highly influential work on Baudelaire and the urban flâneur, as well as his studies of cinema, Walter Benjamin proposed that modern life – industrialization, urbanization, commodification – profoundly changed the way late nineteenth century city dwellers viewed their world. Overstimulated by the world around them, these spectators experienced their surroundings in a state of perpetual and mobile distraction, punctuated by shocks of attention, a mode of perception perfectly suited, according to Benjamin, to the cinema. He writes, “In a film, perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle. That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of reception in the film.”(7) Cinema both presupposes and reflects the altered subjectivity formed by urban life, accounting for its great popularity and making it the modern entertainment par excellence.

Drawing on the work of Benjamin, many others have examined links between cinematic perception and modern perception.(8) Discussing his well known concept of the “cinema of attractions”, which outlines the aesthetic quality of early films, Tom Gunning writes: “The cinema of attractions not only exemplifies a particularly modern form of aesthetics but also responds to the specifics of modern and especially urban life, what Benjamin and [Siegfried] Kracauer understood as the drying up of experience and its replacement by a cult of distraction.”(9) Although different in very many respects, the factor in common between nearly all of these studies is the prominence of urban experience. Benjamin himself was most interested in the history of Paris, but others have examined New York, Chicago and additional metropolitan centres in a similar light. It is likely that a much smaller city, like Ottawa, did not share these qualities of urban crowding and over-stimulation, but does that mean that spectators there would have perceived cinema differently? This thesis will draw attention to those instances which reflect modernized spectatorship among the audiences in Ottawa.

There is a final consideration in this project which is more general and, perhaps, more contentious. I would like to suggest that there is a history of film in Canada that has yet to be written. This is the history of film reception. For many years now, scholars have defined Canadian film studies in terms of an examination of films made in Canada or by Canadians. But an important supplement to this is an examination of how Canadians respond to films made elsewhere, by non-Canadians – after all, statistics suggest that this makes up something like 95% of screen time in this country today.(10) Perhaps the reason for this neglect lies in the siege mentality that has so permeated Canadian cultural thought in the last century: it is taken for granted that Canada is inundated by foreign (usually American) culture, and is at constant risk of losing its own. While I would not dismiss this argument completely, I do think it requires some modification. Mainly, it presupposes a passive or vacant audience, a mass of anonymous viewers who are simply vessels to be filled, or children to be brainwashed.

An examination of a Canadian audience may help to counter this attitude. In recent years, studies of early film audiences have acknowledged that although it may not be possible to construct an audience which takes into account all of the complexities of its viewers’ lives, it is still useful to examine audiences as particular groupings which highlight commonalities of experience and interpretation. Miriam Hansen, for example, does this in her study of the position of women in audiences of silent cinema, Babel and Babylon. Here, she calls for an examination of a “specific social horizon of understanding that shape the viewer’s interpretation.” More than just an examination of the context within which cinema was experienced, Hansen’s approach provides space for the analysis of the “public dimension” of cinema, or those “formations not necessarily anticipated in the context of production.”(11) Beyond acting simply as vessels of narrative or entertainment commodities, films can also facilitate groupings of spectators based on other qualities: interest in a particular star or the peculiarities of local audience composition, for example.

Just as context can be significant in an examination of the reception of cinema among women or ethnic groups, so it can be for an examination of locally defined Canadian audiences. As I will show, a localized “horizon of experience” produces a reception of cinema in Ottawa which stands out from what is understood as the normative experience: that which took place in major American cities. In other words, imported culture is mediated by local experience, and is not necessarily the monolithic colonizing force we feared it to be. This may not be the case for all films at all times, but the issue is worth examining.

In what follows, I will try to present a depiction of what cinema meant when it was introduced to Ottawa in 1896. This will be examined from the point of view of those exploiting it as well as those viewing it. Ottawa has been chosen for both pragmatic reasons (I happen to be living there) as well as the social complexity it offers. My research dwells more on cinema as an instrument, or novel technology than on the films that were shown. As a result, I have looked to other types of evidence: a day-by-day examination of local newspapers (with all the problems this entails) provides the foundation of my study. This is supplemented by a variety of other archival and documentary sources.

The first chapter of this study will examine aspects of the city of Ottawa as they appeared in the mid to late-1890’s. In addition to a general discussion of the commercial and social topography of the city, particular attention will be paid to leisure activities during this period. As the population of Ottawa grew, and the end of the nineteenth century neared, leisure activities gradually shifted from primarily community-based and participatory pastimes to non-local, commercial entertainments. For some segments of the population, this shift was cause for grave concern, as plays and other theatrical events were potentially immoral influences which had to be closely scrutinized. Others, however, embraced commercial entertainments and new venues were constructed to keep up with growing demand. These are some of the conditions which would bear on the reception of cinema when it was eventually introduced.

The second chapter of this thesis will discuss the appearance and exhibition of Edison’s Kinetoscope in Ottawa, the first time in November 1894 and then one year later in November 1895. A direct precursor of projected moving pictures, the Kinetoscope was successfully exploited in the United States by Ottawa entrepreneurs George and Andrew Holland. The machine appeared in Ottawa much later, where it played in a downtown store-front. This chapter will examine contemporary press coverage in an attempt to construct a descriptive and critical account of the machine’s visits to Ottawa.

Chapter three will continue this examination of the conditions in Ottawa prior to the arrival of cinema, but with a greater emphasis placed on the changing role of technology in society. Thanks to the availability of ample supplies of hydro-electricity and the presence of a few important inventor-entrepreneurs, Ottawa was quite technologically advanced for a city of its size. Electric lights and electric street railway lines proliferated during the period up to the appearance of cinema, and were a source of great civic pride. When Ottawa held a winter carnival in 1895, lighting combined with entertainment to make thrilling spectacles which impressed visitors to the city. Technology also changed the shape of the city quite literally, as streetcars expanded out to new suburbs and entertainments venues. Even as the social permissibility of commercial entertainments remained a contentious issue, pre-cinematic imaging devices, such as the magic lantern, occupied a neutral position. Sometimes used for commercial ends, these devices were also found in socially redeemable settings such as women’s meetings or educational lectures. While some of these developments were technological pre-figurations of the cinema, others directly affected where and by whom cinema would eventually be seen.

The fourth chapter of this study will address the exhibition of Edison’s Vitascope at West End Park, near Ottawa, during July and August 1896. In addition to providing a thorough description of the venue, accompanying acts and films shown, this chapter will analyze the audience’s reception of the device. By examining newspaper accounts through the lens of the preceding chapters, it is hoped that a full and compelling appreciation of the audience’s reception will be arrived at.

1. George Holland to John Lowe, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, 8 August 1892, Department of Agriculture, RG 17, vol. 731, Docket 84263, National Archives of Canada.

2. George Holland, “My Ottawa Memories, 1860-,” Maclean’s Magazine, 1 June 1922, 22.

3. Tom Gunning rehearses this debate in his article “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator,” Art & Text 34 (Spring 1989): 31-32, 43n1.

4. Long the only study of early Canadian cinema, Peter Morris’ Embattled Shadows (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1978) remains the most authoritative work in this field. As a survey history of nearly five decades, however, this book does not present itself as a plausible model for a local reception study.

5. Matthew Smith, “Film Reviews and Announcements From 1896: Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto,” Lonergan Review (Concordia University) 6, (2000): 1.

6. Gregory A. Waller, Main Street Amusements (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), xiv-xvi.

7. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (London: Verso, 1983), 132. Benjamin also addresses cinema in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969).

8. Charney and Schwartz’s anthology Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) offers a representative sample of this research.

9. Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment,” 41.

10. Charles R. Acland, “Popular Film in Canada: Revisiting the Absent Audience,” in A Passion for Identity, eds. David Taras and Beverly Rasporich (Toronto: ITP Nelson, 1997).

11. Miriam Hansen, Babel & Babylon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 7. Elsewhere, Hansen uses the phrase “horizon of experience” which I use interchangeably with “social horizon of understanding” in this thesis.

See also;

“Stolen from the Realm of Night:” Modernity, Visual Culture and the Reception of Cinema in Ottawa by Charles Tepperman

Charles Tepperman

Charles Tepperman is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary. Tepperman has published articles on early cinema in Canada and on non-theatrical film culture and technology. He is the author of Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking, 1923-1960. Charles can be reached at ; cetepper at

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