Dr. Lesley Sieger-Walls
Final Abstract for URS Program
In 1920, St. Louis was the 6th largest city in the United States, with a population of 772,897, and density of 11,684/square mile (twice today's density). The population was primarily (90.9%) white, with 14.7% of the white population foreign born. The city had a dense trolley network, while private ownership of automobiles was relatively rare (15.8 residents per car). Cinema exhibition was a thriving business in the city, with 120 cinemas and 29 film exchanges (as compared to, for instance, 12 live theatres in the same year).
Cinemas were located throughout the city, primarily on or near trolley lines. This was a practical necessity given that people of all ages and income classes went to the movies, and car ownership was rare. The film exchanges, which were the primarily way cinema owners would obtain the films they showed in their theatres, were located along the central corridor, often in small clusters in business districts. This was also practical, because these exchanges were frequented by people working in the cinema exhibition industry, and because nitrocellulose film stock posed a fire hazard that would be unacceptable in a residential neighborhood. The lone exception among distributors was a distributor of religious films, located in Benton Park (South Saint Louis), whose customer base likely differed from that of the commercial film exchanges.
The experience of "going to the movies" was more varied in 1920 than it is today. Film programs often consisted of a mix of short films, features, cartoons, and newsreels, and might also include live entertainment. All films were silent, but were frequently accompanied by live music, and sometimes by actors speaking the dialogue of the film. Cinemas themselves were also more varied, including custom-built buildings, some quite luxurious, adapted buildings, and airdromes (open-air or tented facilities).