Are Movies Good or Bad?: 1913 Opinions

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, April 20, 1913:  Went to Sunday School this afternoon.

Classmate and Future Husband: Raymond Swartz
Raymond Swartz 

 Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Three more days until graduation! Since Grandma didn’t write much a hundred years ago today, I’m going to continue to dive deeper into the information provided by her commencement ceremony program.

Six students, including my grandparents—Helena Muffly and Raymond Swartz— graduated from McEwensville High School in 1913. Both spoke at the commencement.

The title of Grandpa’s speech was Motion Pictures as an Educational Factor.


This was the era of silent films and lots of melodrama. When I researched this topic, I was surprised to learn that in 1913 many people thought that movies were a bad influence on young people.

According to Laura Wittern-Keller in her dissertation:

Movies with themes that challenged traditional values, shown in the dark to a mixed audience with larger-than-life figures, spawned a “moral panic.”

Hmm–Grandpa spoke on a controversial topic. He apparently took the side that his high school class mates would have approved of—but that  their parents might have objected to.

How did Grandpa build his argument that movies were educational? . . . Maybe he argued that  they enabled people in rural Pennsylvania to see  “see the world” . . . or that some of the movies were about historic events. . . or that they were works of art.  . .or . . . .

In my imagination, I picture his classmates giving him a standing ovation, while their elders tried to frown but their lips turned up in slight smiles of approval.

46 thoughts on “Are Movies Good or Bad?: 1913 Opinions

  1. Interesting that ,as always, young people are at the forefront of adopting the latest technologies. Today a student might give the same speech with say iPads substituted for movies. I am sure there is something more up to date than iPads; just my old brain can’t think of it at the moment.

  2. One of the movies they may of gone to see would have been Cinderella in 1912. Mable Taliaferro, my distant cousin, was in the movie.

  3. What an interesting topic! Thanks for the tidbit about the negative view of movies at the time. I’m just starting to take up an interest in early film and that fascinates me. 🙂

  4. I’ve heard that movies, and also acting in movies, was frowned upon back in the early 1900’s, so it would have been interesting to know the approach that your grandpa took on the topic. Do you know if there are any archived records in existance for McEwansville High School?

    1. I don’t know of any archived records–though it wouldn’t surprise we if the child or grandchild of a former teacher or student has some stored in an attic or box somewhere.

      I have two locally published books that contain information about the school:

      The History of the McEwensville Schools: 1800-1958 by Thomas Kramm (2000)

      History in McEwensville by George Wesner (1976)

    1. I can’t remember it very clearly–but I think that I have a vague memory of movie theaters being closed on Sundays when I was a child in central Pennsylvania.

  5. How wonderful to have this evidence that your Grandpa was such a “thinker” Sheryl, and in many ways was way before his time.
    Love the photo. A very handsome young man indeed. No wonder Miss Muffly fell for him once he matured and filled out a little 🙂 …
    Good looks AND a brain is a most pleasant combination… I’ve always believed. 🙂

    1. The speech titles are very intriguing. Some sounds controversial. . . a couple sound boring. . . and the one about the prophecy and will of the class of 1913 sounds like something you’d see in a school newspaper or blog today.

  6. Sheryl, I’ll bet you could write an interesting short story or chapter of a book about your Grandpa’s speech… Forgive me if this is old ground – but have you considered writing a historical novel based on your Grandma’s diary?

    Blessings ~ Wendy

    1. Thanks for the intriguing suggestion. I’ve thought about trying to write a book about my grandmother someday, but had pictured it being nonfiction. . . historical fiction is in interesting idea.

      1. I think you have both the patience and passion to write a historical novel based on fact and supplemented with your imagination. It is an idea that I’ve tossed about, too, regarding my own family. 🙂

      2. Nowadays you can write “creative non-fiction” – that is, writing a historical account but “filling in” some details that weren’t included in your grandmother’s diary, based on what you know of her and the time period, of course!

    1. I am very fortunate to have the diary, and enjoy sharing it. Thanks for taking a moment to write the nice note. It’s always wonderful to her when someone enjoys this blog.

  7. I have been researching my ancestors and my great-great grandfather in the mid-1850s was of the opinion that theatre was “decadent” and a “bad moral influence”. I can only imagine what he’d say about movies!

    1. You’re right. He was 3 1/2 years younger than her–so he was 14 1/2 when he graduated and she was 18. I think that he skipped several grades. It was 8 years after they graduated from high school that they got married.

      Their high school class was so small. I continue to be amazed that she never mentions him in the diary. I guess that he must have been a little older when the sparks started to fly.

    1. Thank you for nominating this blog for the award. I am honored that you think it is worthy of the award. As you suggested, I don’t accept awards–but I greatly appreciate the nomination.

  8. Fascinating topic for a speech! There are many people who still think movies (and TV, books, and the internet) are bad influences on young people and seek to restrict access to it (hence the MPAA ratings).

    1. I assume that there were no film ratings a hundred years ago–and that they were started sometime later in the 2oth century.I wonder if (or how) the criteria that the MPAA uses to rate films has changed across the years.

      1. The MPAA website says that the current rating system was implemented in 1968. I’m also curious to know how/if the system has changed over the last 40+ years.

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