National Screening Room, a project by the Library of Congress, is a collection of early films (from the late 19th to most of the 20th century), digitized by the LOC for public use and perusal. Sadly, it’s not made clear which of the films are clearly in the public domain, and so free to remix and reuse, but it’s still fun to browse the collection for a look at cultural and cinematic history.
There’s a bunch of early Thomas Edison kinetoscopes, including this kiss between actors May Irwin and John C. Rice that reportedly brought the house down in 1896:
Or these two 1906 documentaries of San Francisco, one from shortly before the earthquake, and another just after (the devastation is really remarkable, and the photography, oddly beautiful):
There’s a silent 1926 commercial for the first wave of electric refrigerators, promoted by the Electric League of Pittsburgh, promising an exhibition with free admission! (wow guys, thanks)
There’s also 33 newsreels made during the 40s and 50s by All-American News, the first newsreels aimed at a black audience. As you might guess by the name and the dates, it’s pretty rah-rah, patriotic, support-the-war-effort stuff, but also includes some slice-of-life stories and examples of economic cooperation among working-to-middle-class black families at the time.
I hope this is just the beginning, and we can get more and more of our cinematic patrimony back into the public commons where it belongs.