The earliest motion pictures were exhibited in the 1890s, first as a curiosity, then gaining popularity as an inexpensive entertainment shown in nickelodeons. By the 1910s, there were more than 10,000 nickelodeons in the United States, and motion pictures had become a mass media. Some of the earliest motion pictures were based on children's literature, such as George Méliès's Cinderella (1899), or featured children, such as Louis Lumiére's Watering the Gardener (1895).
In the silent film era of the 1920s, children largely watched the same films viewed by adults. Movie stars popular with young people at that time included Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Keystone Cops (Wojcik, 2008). Charlie Chaplin was one of the most beloved entertainers of that period, and his 1921 film The Kid drew particularly from a young audience due to the performance of his child co-star, Jackie Coogan. Young audiences also reveled in the cartoon antics of Felix the Cat, the heroics of a German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin, and the adventures of Tom Mix, a movie cowboy notorious for his amazing stunts astride a horse. Youngsters in Great Britain enjoyed many of the same films as their American counterparts, as well as British-made silent films, such as those featuring a patriotic hero named Lieutenant Rose.
Although children mainly saw the same movies as their parents, they often saw them at separate afternoon matinee screenings. By showing movies for children at times when most adult moviegoers were working, theaters could fill otherwise empty seats. Moreover, because children were smaller, more ticketbuying children could be squeezed onto the movable benches found at the time in many nickelodeons. The conditions for children at these early matinees led to several tragic incidents, most notably in the Uni ted Kingdom, when overcrowding resulted in injuries and even fatalities due to suffocation (Doherty, 2005).
The motion pictures' popularity with young people drew the attention of social reformers and religious leaders in the United States and Great Britain. They feared that the movies glorified immoral behavior—such as criminal activity and illicit love affairs—and influenced children to forgo more wholesome recreational activities. Concerns about children spurred calls for censorship in the early 1900s, resulting in the formation of city and state movie censorship boards. By the late 1920s, civic groups, women's associations, and religious groups increasingly called for federal censorship of the motion pictures (Bazalgette, 2005). In response, the American motion picture industry agreed to regulate the content of the movies on its own with a voluntary production code (commonly known as the Hays Code).
Concerns about the influence of the movies on children also prompted social science research, most notably a 12-volume series entitled Motion Pictures and Youth (commonly known as the Payne Fund Studies), published in 1933. Among the findings of these studies were that school-age children attended the movies more frequently than adults—on average once a week—and that the movies significantly influenced play activities, grooming and dress styles, and courting behaviors of young ...