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How to Mind Your Manners at Silent Movies

Vintage slides give an etiquette lesson to obnoxious silent movie audiences

(Scott and Van Altena/Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Silent movie goers of a century ago didn’t have cell phones or a texting habit, but they definitely had trouble with moviegoing manners.

Hats in the early twentieth century were ostentatious and large, and the ever-growing chapeau was of particular annoyance to early moviegoers. As early as 1909, D.W. Griffith parodied the big hat craze and its worst offenders in a film aptly titled Those Awful Hats:

Even worse, audiences who had come of age during the raucous days of vaudeville didn’t really know how to behave in a movie theater. Catcalls, loud talking, stomping and standing were as common as the much-hated statement hat. Clearly, it was time for a lesson in film etiquette.

Enter John D. Scott and Edward Van Altena. In 1912, this pair of New York designers took matters into their own hands, designing a series of visual guides that demonstrated good behavior to bad audiences. “At the time they were placed in cinemas they were deadly serious but in hindsight they now seem wonderfully ridiculous," So Bad So Good's Alex Wain writes. The Library of Congress has the entire collection of whimsical lantern slides here.

So did the slides help audiences behave better at silent movie showings? Kind of. A decade later, Emily Post lamented the behavior of movie-going louts, but conceded that manners had improved:

As a matter of fact, comparatively few people are ever anything but well behaved. Those who arrive late and stand long, leisurely removing their wraps, and who insist on laughing and talking are rarely encountered; most people take their seats as quietly and quickly as they possibly can, and are quite as much interested in the play and therefore as attentive and quiet as you are. A very annoying person at the “movies” is one who reads every “caption” out loud.

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