The Mutoscope Collection in the National Museum of American History’s Photographic History Collection is among the most significant of its kind in any museum. Composed of 3 cameras, 13 viewers, 59 movie reels and 53 movie posters, the collection documents the early years of the most successful and influential motion picture company of the industry’s formative period. It also showcases a unique style of movie exhibition that outlasted its early competitors, existing well into the 20th century.
The American Mutoscope Company was founded in 1895 by a group of four men, Elias Koopman, Herman Casler, Henry Marvin and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, to manufacture a motion picture viewer called the mutoscope and to produce films for exhibition. Dickson had recently left the employ of Thomas Edison, for whom he had solved the problem of “doing for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear” by inventing the modern motion picture. Casler and Dickson worked together to perfect the mutoscope, which exhibited films transferred to a series of cards mounted in the style of a flip book on a metal core, and avoided Edison’s patents with this slightly different style of exhibition. The company’s headquarters in New York City featured a rooftop studio on a turntable to ensure favorable illumination, and the short subjects made here found such success that by 1897, the Edison company’s dominance of the industry was in danger. American Mutoscope became American Mutoscope & Biograph in 1899, when the namesake projector, invented by Casler, became the most used in the industry.
Mutoscope viewers were found in many amusement areas and arcades until at least the 1960s. Their inexpensiveness and short, often comical or sensational subjects allowed the machines a far longer life than the competing Edison Kinetoscope. The company also found success in its production and projection of motion pictures, though its activity was mired by patent litigation involving Thomas Edison through the 1910s. The notable director D. W. Griffith was first hired as an actor, working with pioneering cinematographer G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, before moving behind the camera at Biograph and making 450 films for the company.
Griffith and Bitzer invented cinematographic techniques like the fade-out and iris shot, made the first film in Hollywood and launched the careers of early stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. The company, simply renamed the Biograph Company in 1909, went out of business in 1928 after losing Griffith and facing a changing movie industry.
The Museum’s collection was acquired in the years between 1926 and the mid-1970s. The original mutograph camera and two later models of the camera were given to the Smithsonian in 1926 by the International Mutoscope Reel Company, which inherited Biograph’s mutoscope works and continued making the viewers and reels through the 1940s. The viewers, reels and posters in the collection were acquired for exhibition in the National Museum of American History, and were later accessioned as objects in the Photographic History Collection. Many of the mutoscope reels in the collection date to the period from 1896-1905, and show early motion picture subjects, some of which were thought to be lost films before their examination in 2008.