Sunday funnies weren’t the only entertainment threatening the morals of youth; penny arcade peep shows led directly to a life of crime and prison, according to this 1905 Santa Rosa Republican editorial.
It’s a strange commentary for a couple of reasons. There apparently were no peep shows in Santa Rosa at the time, so the issue was only of concern to small town moralists liking to tut-tut over big city vice. It was also old news; the Hearst papers had indeed made a stink about peep shows, but that was six years earlier. Was this cribbed from “The Big Book of Op/Eds” to fill a couple of column inches on a slow news day?
These peep shows are an interesting topic, however, and worth a digression, here. The images were viewed on a Mutoscope, where the customer turned a crank to rotate a Rolodex-like drum with flip-card photographs. (Those primitive machines are not to be confused with Edison’s Kinetoscope of the same 1890s vintage, which had the images on a loop of fragile 35mm film threaded through rollers.) Although Mutoscopes also served up minute-long vignettes of current news, comedy shtick, and sporting events from before the turn of the century, Mutoscopes were most often associated with saucy mini-dramas with titles such as, “The Way French Bathing Girls Bathe,” “The Dairy Maid’s Revenge,” and “How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed.”
The ongoing controversy about the Mutoscope content was perfectly captured in the 1905 etching, “Fun, One Cent” by artist John Sloan, seen at right (click to enlarge). Here young women, not boys, are gawking at titillating images; the Hearst papers also complained that even small children were able to watch the little movies, and as seen here, stepstools were available for those too short to reach the viewer. An excellent paper, “Children at the Mutoscope,” describes more about the scandalous scene portrayed:
“Another girl wears a look of mild shock, while three others peer into eyepieces. A predominant tone of amusement, however, is created by the broad smile worn by a laughing woman at the center of the image. She watches not the naughty peep-show but the face of her shocked companion. She appears to be an experienced older viewer introducing schoolgirls to the arcade. Sloan’s representation is not one of panic or indignation, but of almost-quaint celebration, relating a pedestrian pleasure gleaned from an entertainment that is only mildly risque. Fun for a penny is, if not altogether harmless, part of everyday urban life”
The rugged Mutoscope viewers remained popular at least until the WWII era, and were hauled around to even to the most rural parts the nation by carnivals and traveling shows, giving three generations of Americans their first peek at “dirty” moving pictures. Perhaps the occasional circus or fair that visited Santa Rosa had a sideshow tent with a few worn Mutoscopes, where the local boys and girls could pay a penny, crowd around the machine, and watch “The Corset Model.”
One of the San Francisco papers has started a crusade against the so-called “penny palaces” where indecent moving pictures are exhibited and children – boys and girls – are permitted to go unrestricted by their parents and drink the poison that starts young lives on the downward path of crime. The United States Government has some very strict laws about the use of the mails for questionable literature and pictures, and now and again some bold offender pays the penalty. There should be just as much and in fact more care exercised by the authorities in permitting such pictures to be exhibited in the arcades in the various cities of the State where such institutions seem to flourish. If restrictive laws are not made and enforced society will in the end pay the penalty, for every precaution taken in the interest of training the children of the land into clean, wholesome-minded, useful citizens is so much saved from the prison maintenance account.– Santa Rosa Republican op/ed, May 11, 1905