Visualizing Circuits of Cinema circa 1900

How did more than a hundred traveling shows create a continental mass market for movies?

Media historian Paul Moore, at Ryerson University, has data-mined thousands of available newspaper databases to track the circulation of itinerant film shows in the first decade of moving pictures, 1896 to 1908, before permanent picture theatres emerged to anchor movies in local towns and neighbourhoods.

His SSHRC-funded project, Circuits of Cinema, maps this data to visualize the space and pace of the emerging mass public for movies in the years when the market was still organized by entrepreneurial competitors.


Mapping the most prominent two dozen shows at first reveals a tangle of overlapping routes. On closer inspection, there are clear regional limits to any one show’s route, with some plain geographic boundaries, for example, for the American South, and the entire American West. On closer look, even the Northeast U.S. has boundaries, for example between central Pennsylvania, upstate New York and New England.

Moore perceives a set of territories defined by implicit zones of non-competition, as if “gentlemen’s agreements” permitted relatively strong players to circulate unhindered within a discrete region.

Toward a visualization of this conclusion, Moore has selected a “curated” set of traveling shows that best demarcate the tacit regions that collectively constituted a continental mass market for movies. These regions correspond, of course, to prior cultural and socio-economic zones reflected by railway and telegraph companies, metropolitan newspaper circulation, and theatrical routes. They later become recognizable as film exchange territories, reflected in the mutual non-competing concentrations of Hollywood movie theater chains.

Moore’s mapping tool is Atlascine by co-researcher Sébastien Caquard of Concordia University. It is specially designed for charting cinematic spaces, at present using a timeline in hours, minutes, seconds (for the running length of a film), which Moore has adapted to dates ranging from 1896 to 1908 using a scale of 1 day = 10 seconds.
To better visualize his proposed tacit regions, Moore plans next to map aggregate data, for example the spaces corresponding to a floating average range in longitude and latitude for each show’s route.
Paul Moore

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