Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Why North Carolina?

Most studies of early moviegoing focus on America's largest cities. But most people living in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century did not encounter movies in big cities. Movies were a feature of urban life, more people saw films in small cities rather than metropolises.

North Carolina was urbanizing at a rapid pace at the turn of the century — faster than most other states. But urban growth, fueled by tobacco, textile, and furniture manufacturing, did not result in the rise of a few big cities, but rather in the proliferation of small towns. The largest city in North Carolina in 1900, Wilmington, had fewer than 25,000 residents — still a "small town" according to some measures of urban density. Of the hundreds of villages, settlements, towns, and cities that dotted the 48,000-square-mile landscape of turn-of-the-century North Carolina, only a dozen communities boasted populations of more than 5000 residents. Early 20th-century North Carolina included a wide variety of different kinds of urban settlement within a wide variety of geographic settings: centuries-old coastal cities and new piedmont mill towns, isolated mountain and barrier-island communities and railroad hubs, tobacco markets and textile, lumber, and furniture towns.

Most studies of the social experience of moviegoing have focused on class and ethnicity as key factors influencing who went to the movies, where they saw them, and under what social circumstances. For millions of Americans for the first half of the twentieth century, race was an enormously consequential marker of social identity. And in a significant portion of the United States, race determined the character of the experience of moviegoing for all residents. When movies were first shown in an American theater (1896), nine out of ten African Americans lived in the South, and most African American Southerners lived in the rural and small-town South. Focusing on the social experience of early moviegoing in North Carolina, where one-third of the population was African American, illuminates the role of race in movie culture for everyone who lived there. North Carolina also had the largest American Indian population of any eastern state. Because Jim Crow racial policies were most rigidly imposed in the urban spaces of the South, and because moviegoing was largely a feature of town and city life, examining early moviegoing in North Carolina also sheds light on the "racing" of the experience of urban life there and throughout the South.

Why a Digital Library Devoted to Moviegoing in North Carolina?

The University of North Carolina Library possesses exceptional resources with which to undertake this project. It also fits very well with the library's goals for digitization and access.

Like most other forms of popular culture, the act of moviegoing left few historical traces. It is estimated that two-thirds of all films made in the U.S. prior to 1940 do not exist in any form. Surviving versions of those that do survive tell us nothing about how, where, and by whom they might have been viewed. Few early moviegoers left detailed written recollections of their experiences, and oral histories of moviegoing (perhaps the most significant potential resource for documenting the African American experience of cinema) have only rarely been recorded. Most movie theaters in operation prior to 1930 have long since been torn down or transformed beyond recognition into other business enterprises. Few business records of early theaters survive. Going to the show was such a regular part of everyday life for so many people in so many places that no one thought very much about documenting it at the time.

Moviegoing is documented, although indirectly and fragmentarily, because many of the venues where movies were shown — opera houses, high schools, YMCAs, amusement parks, and, beginning in 1906 in North Carolina, movie theaters — were a part of the social and business landscape of early twentieth-century towns and cities. As towns emerged or assumed their modern forms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, their residents, civic and social institutions, and businesses were documented in several forms that survive in libraries and archives today.

City Directories

City directories were published for many towns and cities by the end of the 19th century. Although directory formats vary, most annual directories listed each town resident alphabetically and his or her address and occupation. A street-by-street index listed the use of each lot on each street in the town by street number. A separate business directory listed each business enterprise in town, arranged by type of business. Thus, early movie theaters begin to appear under "amusements," "theaters," and eventually "moving picture theaters" in directories at some point after 1906. Listings for movie theaters usually (but not always) included the street address and frequently the name of the manager or proprietor. The racial coding that governed every other aspect of social life in Southern towns also organized the way the town's residents and businesses were represented in city directories: African American residents were noted with an * or "c" (for colored). Over 150 North Carolina city directories were scanned and hosted by the Open Content Alliance Internet Archive

Sanborn® Maps

Between 1867 and 1977 the Sanborn® Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced large-scale (usually 50 feet to the inch) color maps of commercial and industrial districts of some 12,000 towns and cities in North America to assist fire insurance companies in setting rates and terms. Each set of maps represented each built structure in those districts: its use, dimensions, height, building material, and other relevant features (fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example). The intervals between new map editions for a given town or city in the early decades of the twentieth century varied according to the pace and scale of urban growth — from a few years to more than five years. In all, Sanborn® produced 50,000 editions comprising some 700,000 individual map pages. Because almost all early movie theaters were "repurposed" from an existing retail space located in the commercial heart of a town or city, they appear on thousands of Sanborn map pages after 1906. Larger, purpose-built theaters were included in later Sanborn maps.


Local newspapers reported on early movie exhibitions in towns across America from 1896 to 1907, and announced the openings of movie theaters when they began to appear in 1906 in North Carolina. Movie theater managers advertised their theaters, programs, special features, promotions, and competitive advantages in local newspapers.

North Carolina Collection

The University of North Carolina has been collecting printed and published material about the state of North Carolina since 1844, and the University of North Carolina Library's North Carolina Collection now contains one of the largest such collections in the world. Included in that collection are hundreds of city directories for North Carolina towns and cities, an extensive microfilm collection of local N.C. newspapers, and a full set of original, unbound Sanborn maps for towns and cities in N.C. As a result, the North Carolina Collection probably contains more documentation of early moviegoing in a U.S. state than any other single library or archive with the possible exception of the Library of Congress.

Documenting the American South

The UNC Chapel Hill Library has also moved aggressively in recent years to make some of its vast archival holdings available to a world-wide audience, taking advantage of new technologies for preserving, organizing, displaying, and circulating original materials. A point of particular emphasis in the library's digitization efforts has been material relating to the history of the American South. Documenting the American South, of which Going to the Show is a part, has made available many rare or unique materials from the Southern Historical Collection, one of the largest collections of manuscript materials about the South in the world, as well as materials from other collections. Going to the Show is the first Documenting the American South project to be organized around spatial data (the Sanborn® Fire Insurance Maps) and the first to showcase the North Carolina Collection's unparalleled holdings of city directories, state city and local newspapers, postcards, and photographs.