Aug 4, 2015

Identifying an 1897 flip book with fight pictures

The University of Iowa Special Collections & University Archives has an excellent Tumblr site, on which it regularly posts animated GIFs made from objects in its collections. This one -- a second of moving-image photography showing a boxing sequence from 1897 -- caught my eye.

The animated Graphics Interchange Format suits flip book content very well.

The object in question is identified by an assigned descriptive title, Living Photograph Flip Book, Novelty Export Co, 1897. With the added description (from where?) "James Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons championship boxing match." 

Having never seen these images before in my research on fight pictures and early cinema (and having thought I'd "seen it all"), I wanted to know more. Was this actually a film ["film"] heretofore unregistered in any history of cinema? I also recollected the rich discussion that ignited in 2013 among historians of early cinema (particularly on the Domitor listserv) when Variety magazine ran a report that a lost film by Georges Méliès might have been rediscovered from a surviving flip book. 

These photographs in the Iowa GIF are definitely not of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons championship fight of 1897. Nor are they from the Veriscope motion picture recording of that event. Nor are the boxing performers Jim Corbett and / or Bob Fitzsimmons. Nor do these pictures come from the Lubin company’s 1897 film “Fac Simile of the Great Fight.” (See below.) It’s clear the performers are meant to represent the pompadoured Corbett, the balding Fitzimmons, and the vested referee at the actual fight, George Siler. But the framing and mise-en-scene in this GIF of Living Photograph Flip Book match no films of the famed Corbett-Fitzimmons fight, nor any related films. 

Here are two more images from Living Photograph Flip Book the Iowa Spec Coll Tumblr posted after I inquired about the mystery. 

There's not yet a University of Iowa Libraries catalog record per se for the wee thing, but it is listed as one of seventeen "Miniature Artifacts and Objects" in Iowa's Charlotte M. Smith Collection of Miniature Books. Most of the other flip books named are from the 1930s or 40s (or undated) and are juvenilia related to Hollywood animation (Walter Lantz, Disney). The only other metadata about Living Photograph Flip Book reads: "Front wrapper and maybe one page missing. Buckram container at base has been taped together." And "Descriptions for U.S. items published before 1901 have been checked against Robert C. Bradbury’s Antique United States Miniature Books 1690-1900 (No. Clarendon, Vermont: The Microbibliophile, 2001)." reveals that this flip book is held in at least three other libraries, although none use Living Photograph Flip Book as a title of the work. 

• The University of Virginia Library Special Collections catalogs it

as A Story without Words (Buffalo, NY: Gies & Co., 1897). Like the Iowa item, it’s printed with the notice “Copyright, M. Kingsland, 1897.” 95 leaves, 47 x 64 mm.

• University of California Santa Barbara Library’s Special Collections, uses the same metadata for its edition of A Story without Words.

• The Notre Dame Hesburgh Libraries’ Rare Books and Special Collections catalogs its item as A Story without Words: The Fight (variant title Fight: A Story without Words). Same publisher credits, but only 85 leaves; 39 x 58 mm. 

• Outside of Worldcat records, a Web search reveals that the Museum of the History of Science (in Oxford, UK)  holds a different edition of what appears to be the same (or nearly same) set of images, judging from the still image on its website. The museum assigns the title Pocket Kinetoscope ‘Series C’ Flip Book (London: American Jubilee Company, date “end 19th century”). 81 leaves (”photographic sheets”), 52 x 37 x 15mm. 

Left, Pocket Kinetoscope ‘Series C’ Flip Book.  Center and right, The Yankee Cop. Photos from Museum of the History of Science, whose website includes an excellent history of the flip book.

• A second museum item bears a title similar to Iowa Spec Coll’s -- ‘Living Photograph’ Flip Book -- and lists the same publisher, Gies & Co. ("USA c. 1897"). This one contains 84 photographic images and measures 60 x 40 x 22 mm, but shows a different subject. It’s inscribed with the title The Yankee Cop, also credited to M. Kingsland. It does show “two men fighting,” but they are not boxers. A policeman arrived "to hit the first man while the second man laughs.”

• Also, a private auction site sold a flip book it described as Story Without Words, The Fight - Finish [sic]. Despite the variant title, it too was from M. Kingsland and Gies & Co., “from their Living Photographs Series, 1897.” The "Finish" suggests the images showed an imitation of the punch with which Fitzsimmons knocked out defending heavyweight champion Corbett. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum includes a listing for a "flick book" of the same title and Kingsland authorship (but simultaneously describes it as a mutoscope[?]). 

The Iowa version, then, appears to be unique in its description of “James Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons championship boxing match.” And also unique with its inscription from “Novelty Export Co.” A Wisconsin dealer once listed something on eBay as "Vintage Flip Book The Fight, Corbett/Fitzsimmons, Copyright 1897 M. Kingsland." However, I suspect that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons names were added after the seller saw the Iowa Spec Coll Tumblr. One of the earlier comments on the Tumblr was an inquiry from someone who said s/he owned a flip book entitle The Fight from 1897 and asked what the value of the item might be. (No one ventured a guess. The eBay book sold for $60.)

On a related note, the Iowa special collections library has the only record I can find for the rare book entitled The Greatest Fight of the Age between Robert Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett for the World’s Championship at Carson City, Nevada, March 17, 1897. Giving each round in detail, also a full description of every legitimate hit, together with other valuable information in connection with the prize ring, written by Colonel William Thompson (n.p., 1897?). 

I still have no leads on who “M. Kingsland” was, but presumably a photographer working for the publishing and printing house Gies & Co. As I’m learning, Charles Gies’s company was among the best and largest multipurpose printing operations in the U.S., lasting from about 1871 to 1922. Mark Strong’s account says Gies & Co. operations in Buffalo, and later Pittsburgh, were “lithographers, engravers, printers, publishers, general book printers, wood engravers, electrotypers, blank book manufacturers, catalogue & pamphlet printers, job & commercial printers, and bookbinders.”

Both Gies & Co. and Novelty Export Co. appear in advertisements in The Phonoscope, a trade journal published from 1896 to 1900. 

High-resolution, searchable scanned copies of the Library of Congress run (through 1899) are available at the Internet Archive. However the final months (January - June 1900) are currently only searchable via Google Books, which offers low-resolution copies scanned from Stanford University Libraries. 
Consistent with the Iowa library catalog record, March and April 1897 ads in Phonoscope have the Novelty Export Co. (at 1270 Broadway NYC, near 33rd Street, to be specific) selling “Gies & Co.’s ‘Living Photographs.’” The ads did not tell prospective amusement vendors exactly what these things were, but say “Objects move and people act as if alive.” Comedy and novelty are emphasized. “New scenes” were promised weekly, including one ad teasing “The Bedroom Scene.” All on par with, for example, the American Mutoscope Company’s subjects for its flip-card peep-show devices.

But the novelties being exported here were not, near as I can tell, done as cinematography per se. Something more like Muybridge serial photography, very short sequences of action. Some editions of the Gies fight flip book say: “Pictures are taken by special photographic machinery invented by us.“ We don’t know much more about that machinery, although Gies promised high quality “pictures from first original plates.”

The revealing detail comes from an ad on the back cover of the March 1897 edition of The Phonoscope. Here again the vocabulary of sight and sound technologies is hybrid and confusing. “Living Photographs” are here identified as “a miniature kinetoscope.” The Kinetoscope was the Edison company’s well-known brand name for its peep-show viewing device, which showed loops of 35mm celluloid motion-picture film, marketed throughout 1894-96. By 1897, theatrical projection displaced peep shows and the brand name was used for the “Edison Projecting Kinetoscope.” Edison of course was also the inventor and seller of phonographs, which were also the focus of The Phonoscope monthly.

These March and April 1897 ads, however, do yield a definitive clue, making it clear how these flip books were connected to the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight alluded to in the Iowa description. Novelty Export Co. reproduced 4 still images from 4 different titles in its 12 newest scenes. The first is entitled The Great Fight and includes a photo/frame with what are surely the same three figures in the all-important Iowa GIF.  

The text is artful enough to not explicitly claim these are pictures of or from the actual championship fight between Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, recorded by the Veriscope Company on 63mm motion-picture film, March 17, 1897, in Carson City, Nevada. That event was a sensation in all media that year. There were many attempts to cash in on its topicality. Veriscope’s was the first feature-length film in history and was widely seen for many months. Periodicals carried Corbett-Fitzsimmons news and pictures (photographs, drawings, engravings, lithos, cartoons) in abundance. Some were derived from frames of movies, such as this one (which bears more than a little similarity to "The Great Fight" image above). 

In another artful and confusing advertisement, adjacent to the Novelty Export ads were pitches for “The Big Corbett Fight.” “We positively guarantee to our customers that this is the only Miniature Kinetoscope published showing James J. Corbett in the ring as a participant in an actual fight.” The advertiser was “the Edison Phonograph Company.” However the address listed to which prospective buyers were to mail ten cents for a sample was 23 South Eighth Street, Philadelphia – next door to the Lubin film company’s headquarters at 21 S. 8th. The same Lubin that marketed a 35mm movie “fac simile” of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, a notorious fake. 

Screenshot from the ACLS Humanities e-book version of 
Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema (2008). 
The Phonoscope ad’s claim to have pictures of Corbett in the ring in an actual fight indicates that the “Edison Phonograph Company” was using the 1894 motion picture Corbett and Courtney before the Kinetograph as its source. That six-film set of Kinetoscope productions was Edison’s most popular early title and was also sold for film projection in 1896-97, as the Fitzimmons fight approached. 

Two frames from a seldom-seen round of Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (1894), including a moment when the boxers drift nearly off screen. These screenshots are low-resolution, but they're derived from a first-generation nitrate film fragment in the Library of Congress collection. They differ from the rounds most often seen from the Museum of Modern Art Edison collection or the Library of Congress's online versions (which derive from the Gordon Hendricks Collection previously held by the Smithsonian). For a good approximation of how vivid and sharp the various nitrate fragment of Corbett-Courtney look, see the two seconds or so included in the final montage sequence in Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011). 
It’s a marvelous confusion of media archaeology. If this “Big Corbett Fight” “miniature kinetoscope” was ever actually produced, it must have been an attempt at a flip book like those being made by Gies & Co. and distributed by Export Novelty Co. In fact, the website devoted entirely to the form -- -- begins its illustrated history of flip books with this small JPG, whose imprint indeed is from the Edison Phonograph Co., although it bears only the title Prize Fight. What images follow that cover? Who printed it? Gies & Co.? Were paper copies printed of frames from Edison's three-year-old 35mm film of Corbett-Courtney in the Black Maria? Or was the upstart film producer and "manufacturing optician" S. Lubin of Philadelphia involved? 

If its press is to be believed, the New York-based company Export Novelty was well capitalized and truly did business internationally. Its “Kinetoscope” was a paper booklet. It sold phonograph and gramophone records too. But Phonoscope also reported that Export Novelty made “the Automatic Photograph Machine, which produces a perfect picture in one minute.” ("Novelties Up to Date," The Phonoscope, April 1897, p. 7.) Was that perfect picture a still photo? Was that Automatic Photograph Machine the same as that sold by Mills Novelty Co. in 1905? 

Automatic Photograph Machine (ca. 1905).
Photo from Greg McLemore, via the International Arcade Museum website.  

Or perhaps it was more like this "Auto-Muto Picture Machine" manufactured by Caille Bros. Co. in that magic year of 1897? 
Auto-Muto Picture Machine.
Photo from Greg McLemore.
via the International Arcade Museum website.  

For media archaeologists to consider: this museum is not simply a creature of collectors of vintage mechanical devices. It is also part of a network that includes video games and contemporary media. Although McLemore, for example, is a collector antique coin-operated machines, he is also founder of and The museum's interconnected websites at include searchable databases, shared inventories, and histories from a few thousand affiliates. The organization is a museum, a library, and an archive -- all devoted to many strands of what we now call media archaeology. 

-- Dan Streible

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