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Siegmund Lubin

Timeline of Lubin's Life & Work

Lubin's Life

Siegmund Lubin, a newly-arrived German-Jewish immigrant in 1876, had by 1912 became America's first movie mogul, a powerhouse in the early moving picture era. A commercial genius and a master at self promotion, he was able to parlay his knowledge of cameras and lenses into one of the most commercially successful movie companies of the early silent era. The Betzwood studio was the flagship of his empire of studios and was world famous before bankruptcy brought Lubin's self made world crashing down.

Article on Lubin company invention

Article on Lubin company invention

It was, however, a long way to the top. Lubin was born Siegmund Lubszynski, in what is now Poland, around 1841. His family were middle class Jews struggling to make ends meet, and the paucity of material comfort and discrimination that came with such modest beginnings forged an iron determination.

Despite the early death of his father he was able to graduate from Heidelberg University as an ophthalmologist. The skills and the knowledge of lenses he learned there would serve him well in the emerging technology of moving picture cameras. His life- long fascination and appreciation for technology would keep him at the forefront of an industry that was about to change the world.

As did many of his generation he sought economic opportunities in America. His first attempt in 1868 was unsuccessful though he found the United States far more accommodating on his second trip in 1876. Within a few years he had a thriving ophthalmology practice in Philadelphia, a wife and two daughters, and a desire to build an economic empire.

A daring entrepreneur, (and some would argue less than ethical), Lubin combined impeccable timing with keen observations of his community to recognize potential business opportunities. The biggest prospect, as he saw it, was moving pictures. By the late 1890’s, after several years of advances, the industry had rapidly begun to expand. There were many inventors, famous and not so famous, working on perfecting the cameras and projectors. As a business option however, it was only waiting for the right person to exploit its true potential. Lubin would quickly move in and cover all aspects of the film industry; manufacturing, distribution, and supply.

Lubin quickly recognized the public appeal movie exhibitions would have, as opposed to Thomas Edison, the most famous inventor involved in the race. He helped create a demand for film by advertising in popular entertainment magazines and soon demand outpaced supply. He was very astute at predicting what the public would want, catering to the lower classes, with which he was most familiar and comfortable. He created the first chain of movie theaters--seventeen theaters in six states by 1908--and set up a distribution system that supplied other exhibitors and theaters owners.

The manufacturing side of his business, the production of cameras, projectors and films, grew just as rapidly. From the back room of the optical shop and a rooftop studio on Philadelphia's Arch Street in 1899, Lubin expanded to an entire building on Market Street by 1906, and again to a studio and factory that took up a whole city block in North Philadelphia by 1910.

By 1912 Lubin was ready to expand again, the "Lubinville" studio in North Philadelphia  no longer meeting all his needs. He branched out, establishing branch studios in Florida and California. As the administrative and technological hub of this empire of studios, he also purchased the estate of Philadelphia brewer John F. Betz, some 20 miles northwest of the city, and established his biggest studio there. This was the pinnacle of Lubin’s personal and business success and the culmination of his dreams of economic victory and social acceptance. But already the seeds of his decline were evident.

Lubin faced mounting difficulties from which he would not be able to recover. The pace of technological advances had increased through the first decade of the century as did consumer tastes. Lubin kept up with the technological paces, but his storytelling lacked the artistic quality that the public was beginning to expect. This would plague him throughout the rest of his career despite repeated attempts to correct the shortcomings. He would also fail to completely understand the transition of single to multi-reel films, a natural evolution and part of the public’s demand for better narratives. Lubin gambled on the continued thriving of the nickelodeons which showed only single reel films, even while he spent a fortune to produce his own mutli-reel features. In the process he  spread himself too thin and when the demand for single reel films disappeared, he could  not recoup his losses or make ends meet. Legal difficulties and his fierce loyalty to Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company cost him dearly as well. The First World War stripped away his foreign markets. By 1916, just four years after his triumphal opening of the Betzwood studio, Lubin was bankrupt. He made repeated attempts to stay involved in the movie industry, but he died on September 11, 1923, never able to recapture his past glories.

Lubin Immigrates to America

Siegmund Lubin, a poor though not destitute Jew, seemed almost destined to come to America. Possessed of unbounded energy and ambition, he chaffed against the restrictions of German society and left for the United States fully invested in its promise of fame and fortune for those bold enough to reach.

Germany had been his parents’ refuge from an oppressive Poland. However, life for a Jew in 19th-century Germany was hampered by limited economic opportunities and a cultural anti-Semitism that kept most Jews ghettoized. This was despite legal emancipation for Jews in 1869.

Contrasted against this hard life, European emigration agents, guidebooks, newspapers, and journals were all encouraging people just like Lubin to emigrate. Indeed, nearly 20 million immigrants came to the United States in the 19th Century seeking economic and political opportunities that eluded them in their homelands.

Lubin first left for the United States in 1868, preceded by his cousin, Joseph, perhaps making his decision to leave home a bit easier. Siegmund intended to sell trinkets to Native Americans but with nobody buying he was forced to return to Germany within a year. Such a return was not unusual, many immigrants never intended a permanent move and there was a steady flow back and forth across the Atlantic. Estimates place the number of such sojourners as high as 1 in 3 [1]. He remained convinced, however, that America was indeed a land of unparalleled opportunity and was determined to return as soon as he finished his education.

Returning to Heidelberg, he earned a degree in ophthalmology, and made his return trip to the United States soon thereafter, in 1876. Armed with the degree he was able to leverage this training into his film empire. He started small, moving throughout the country pedaling eyeglasses on city streets, eventually opening up his own successful optometry shop. It was truly the immigrants dream. But for him it was just the beginning. He was a technophile with knowledge of lenses and a tinkerer’s heart. He innately understood moving pictures and the potential the new technology had and he dove in.  America’s promise of riches delivered, at least until his last few years when the collapse of his studio plunged him into bankruptcy. Even then, he spent the rest of his life proudly proclaiming his American credentials, and not without sincerity.

Bibliography

  1. ^ “Immigration and Immigrants.” Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century.electronic. Farmington: Gale, 2000.

The Rise of Lubin

For a few short years, from 1910-1916, Siegmund Lubin sat atop the film world as the original movie mogul. He had spent decades struggling to overcome obscurity and poverty, the twin banners of the immigrant to the United States, to wield a powerful voice in the fledgling industry. His empire encompassed all aspects of the industry including production, distribution and exhibition. He was, at one time or another, owner of the largest chain of movie theaters in the nation, owner of the largest and most advanced movie studio in the industry, and owner of numerous patents. The fame, money, and power were, however, fleeting.

Yet today, nearly one hundred years after his pinnacle of power, he is not much more than a footnote. He is mostly remembered as a minor player of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), an attempt by Thomas Edison and other movie pioneers to create a film monopoly which ended in a disastrous federal lawsuit.  An overview of film history books finds that Lubin’s name is listed rarely and generally only in connection with the MPPC.

Lubin’s career did not follow the typical trajectory of the industry’s earliest successes in that he was forced to declare bankruptcy only four years after opening his Betzwood studio. His insurmountable setbacks included a devastating fire at his Philadelphia studio, the loss of overseas markets during the First World War, and the court-ordered dissolution of the Patents Company. Most consequential, however, was his inability to adapt to the changing tastes of the viewing public. As people demanded better films with more narrative, Lubin’s films, despite a few successes, were unable to deliver the quality story that may have saved his studio. His unique life experiences prepared him to take advantage of the new technology, and his personality and timing permitted him to ride that technology to the top, but he found it difficult to adapt to the rapidly-changing industry. This section will provide a brief description of Lubin’s ride to the top of the industry.

In the late 19th century, there were a number of scientific and technical advances in the field of photography that fed speculation that it might be possible to create the illusion of an actual moving picture. Inventors and technicians throughout the world were working on the possibility and patenting inventions that propelled this novel idea ever further. Lubin, always a technophile, was well aware of these inventions and understood their intricacies and implications. He was also a tireless entrepreneur, flamboyant self-promoter, and an astute observer of his community. On the whole, he was well positioned to exploit the potential of this emerging technology.

Lubin was quick to establish himself as an entrepreneur upon his arrival in the United States. Unlike many of his fellow immigrants, he was not completely unprepared. His degree in ophthalmology provided a valuable tool he was able to leverage into a successful business and he quickly moved beyond traveling the country as a spectacle salesmen to opening an optical shop inPhiladelphia. He also developed sidelines which included a chemistry lab, penny arcades in the Tenderloin District, and the production of magic lantern slides for vaudeville shows.  By the mid-1890s Lubin had established himself as a very successful Philadelphia businessman. Ever the tinkerer and energetic dynamo, he was simultaneously experimenting with film and lenses attempting to create his own moving pictures. His first success, an image of his horse eating hay, came with a camera he purchased from inventor C. Francis Jenkins in 1896 and modified with his own ideas.

Lubin had always been a risk-taker and his technical expertise and financial security allowed him to confidently expand into the movie business. Movies were a young and novel industry, but Lubin recognized its potential to become big business. In 1896, during a trip to New Orleans, he witnessed what was then a very new phenomenon. Showman William T. Rock had built a temporary theater and was presenting Life Motion Pictures on a new Edison Vitascope machine to astonished and enthusiastic audiences. Lubin instantly understood the implications and potential and brought this valuable lesson home the Philadelphia. By 1897, Lubin had begun designing and selling projectors to other showmen looking for something new or young presenters looking to break into the business. His strategy was to build a network of showmen dependent upon him not only for their machines, but for their supplies and films as well.   In January 1897 Lubin placed advertisements for his machines and movies in The New York Clipper, the leading entertainment trade magazine of the day thus becoming became the first entrepreneur to mass market both motion picture projectors and films. A few years later he became the first American film producer to expand his operations overseas, to Germany.

Very quickly demand for films outstripped supply. There were other suppliers, most notably Thomas Edison studios, but separately they were unable to satiate the public appetite for movies. Lubin saw that the demand could only be met by pooling the resources of all the film producers of the day and he proceeded to do just that—without bothering to ask or tell any of the other film producers. To supply the demand for new films Lubin became the first movie pirate.  He invested heavily to buy a copy of every film made by every known manufacturer, foreign and domestic. He then copied the films and sold the “dupes” at bargain prices. This strategy earned him a reputation as an unethical and dishonest business man, a reputation that  would follow him for the rest of his career and overshadow many of his actual accomplishments.

While his own films were often mediocre, especially at first, Lubine had an instinctive grasp of what the earliest movie going public wanted to see. He catered to the lower classes, the group with whom he felt most comfortable. But he also had a vision for film that was not in complete synchrony with the rest of the industry. He believed that film would fulfill its role more as a source of information and education and not strictly as entertainment. He predicted to a German magazine in 1900 that the day would come when every family would have a motion picture machine in their parlor and the day’s events would be delivered as a reel of film, not as an evening newspaper. Lubin’s first films were created mostly in his own backyard. By 1899, having outgrown the yard and exceeded his neighbors’ patience, he built a studio on the roof of a building at 912 Arch Street in Philadelphia.  He moved his entire operations there in 1901 and, in 1904, he released his first original narrative, The Bold Bank Robbery.

By 1903, he was renting films through his “Philadelphia Film Exchange,” and within two years, he was operating one of the principal film exchange services in the United States. Lubin, mindful that people would need a place to watch these films, and, hedging his bets that Edison, in a continuation of the ongoing legal war between the two, would try to close his manufacturing business, began to operate his own theaters starting with a temporary theater in Philadelphia in 1899. He then built permanent theaters in Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1902, the beginnings of what would become the first chain of movie theaters spanning at least five states. By 1908, he was the owner of one of the largest chains of movie theaters in the country and employing over sixty actors and photographers in his studio. With his entrance into the field of exhibition, Lubin became the first person to vertically integrate the film industry; he was simultaneously a producer, distributor and exhibitor of motion pictures.

The first decade of the twentieth century was a period of remarkable expansion for Lubin’s enterprises. At the close of the decade, Siegmund Lubin was one of a very few people in the business involved in all aspects of the industry and one of the wealthiest. He was powerful enough to build the largest, most advanced studio of the era. He was, as he had long sought to be, a respected man.