“The Ghastly Radiance of the Mercury Tubes” — 1907

“Don’t mind us — just go about your jobs as normal…”

by Paula Bosse

The caption of the photo above: “Making Moving Pictures in the Larkin Factories. The Mercury Vapor Lamps are Shown Along the Wall.”

The photo documents the making of an early industrial film for the Larkin Factories of Buffalo, New York, a massive company which manufactured over 300 products — everything from toiletries to peanut butter. The sprawling factory, which covered more than 50 acres of floor space, was of such interest to the curious public that there were regularly scheduled tours. 

In 1907 “a Chicago concern” was asked by the Larkin Factories to make a film to show off its company at an exhibit at the Jamestown (Virginia) Exposition. It was apparently something of a logistical headache to get the camera and bulky lighting equipment into sometimes awkwardly tight factory spaces. The filmmakers also had to deal with getting the workers to look “natural” as they operated various machinery. A quote from an article on the film describes the setting:

The men and women had to be drilled to do their work in front of the ghastly radiance of the mercury tubes, with their usual nonchalance.” (The Nickelodeon, Oct. 1909)

In addition to its showing at the Jamestown Exposition, the film was shown in several movie houses, and it was a hit: by 1909 it was estimated that over half a million people had seen it. The Larkin company was ecstatic — all that “free” publicity was invaluable. These early industrial films were quite popular with movie-goers. From that same 1909 article:

People flock to see industrial films for the same reason that they are interested in travel pictures — because it is the only way in which many of them can ever hope to see the sights that are pictured. This is one of the greatest arguments in favor of motographic advertising.” (The Nickelodeon, Oct. 1909)


If The Graduate had taken place in 1909, the famous “plastics” scene would have gone something like this:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say two words to you, just two words.

Ben: Yes, sir?

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: …“Motographic advertising.”

Ben: …Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in motographic advertising. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes, I will.

Mt. McGuire: Enough said. That’s a deal.

It seems unlikely that this film has survived, but it would be fascinating to see it.


Sources & Notes

Photo is from the October, 1909 issue of the trade magazine The Nickelodeon. Read the accompanying article about the Larkin film in the scanned magazine here. See a larger image of the photo here.

An exhaustive look at the history of the Larkin Factories can be found here.

Images of the factory can be seen here.


Copyright © 2017

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