Whether you watch them on the big screen or on Twitter, trailers are a fixture of the modern movie-watching experience. But when the film industry began in the early 20th century, trailers were nowhere to be found. Instead, audiences flocked to peek at lobby cards.
Each one barely bigger than a sheet of letter paper, lobby cards were displayed in sets of eight or more in the lobbies of movie theaters. The first card typically displayed a film’s name and crew, which was followed by scene cards that gave viewers a glimpse at the plot. While lobby cards were particularly important in the industry’s early days, they survived until the 1980s, writes librarian Josie Walters-Johnston in a Library of Congress blog post.
Today, lobby cards are crucial for another reason: In some cases, they are the only surviving evidence of a film’s existence, as so many early films have been lost or destroyed. That’s why lobby card collector Dwight Cleveland has teamed up with Dartmouth College’s Media Ecology Project to digitally preserve his collection of over 10,000 lobby cards from the silent film era.
“There’s so much media that is in danger of disintegrating, just literally turning to dust,” Cleveland tells Kathy McCormack of the Associated Press (AP).
Cleveland, a real estate developer by day, first became interested in vintage film cards and posters as a high school student in the 1970s, per the AP. Collecting and celebrating those “historical, vulnerable, ephemeral [and] extraordinary” materials has become a passion for Cleveland, who published a book called Cinema on Paper: The Graphic Genius of Movie Posters in 2019.
Preserving and expanding film history is also a passion for Mark Williams, a film and media studies expert at Dartmouth who is overseeing the digitization project. With the help of a team of students, he is seeing that Cleveland’s lobby cards get carefully scanned and cataloged.
“Part of what is exciting about this project is that we can make available, both to the public and also to scholars, extremely rare material about the earliest days of cinema,” says Williams in a statement. “Many films from that era are gravely endangered, and the vast majority are considered to be materially lost.”
Lobby cards can add nuance to contemporary film scholars’ understanding of the early days of cinema. That was the impetus for “Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood,” a show exhibiting a selection of Cleveland’s lobby cards at New York’s Poster House earlier this year. The exhibition featured cards and posters that revealed the importance women played in the silent film industry, both in front of and behind the screen.
“These women played such a significant role as directors, producers, editors, adaptors, writers and designers,” Cleveland tells NPR’s Chloe Veltman. “I was kind of embarrassed after 45 years that I didn't know more about this.”
Additionally, many of Cleveland’s lobby cards allude to plots that subverted and parodied the gender expectations of their time. Oh, You Women!, a 1919 silent film, is about a man who finds his hometown overrun with suffragists in pants—and when he finds a woman wearing a dress, he falsely believes her not to be a suffragist and falls in love. Cleveland also has scene cards from The Amazons, a lost film from 1917 that follows three sisters who are raised as men.
Williams hopes that the digitization effort will help cement the reality that media is not everlasting, and that it needs to be actively preserved.
“People, they link up to YouTube, and they think that media history is inexhaustible and eternal,” he tells the AP. “And both of those statements are false.”