The curious case of a viral vintage newsreel
In the world of e-history, a good meme always trumps accuracy
Recently, a piece of e-history went viral. It was a vintage newsreel that claimed to show a 3-year-old chimney sweep and his father in the 1930s. I saw it on Twitter:
It was a charming piece of footage, checking all the boxes for clickable and shareable e-history content: nostalgic, visually-arresting, easily digestible and with a potential for shock and controversy. The tweet amassed more than 180,000 likes and 26,000 retweets before being deleted on July 30th.
Perhaps the tweet was deleted because this footage was far more complex than it appeared on the surface. The curious case of the viral vintage newsreel illustrates what e-history does and how social media privileges certain types of content. It also helps us be more media and historically literate information consumers online.
Let’s dig into this e-history case study.
Checks multiple boxes
In my book, I define e-history as “discrete media products that package an element, or elements, of the past for consumption on the social Web, and which try to leverage the social Web in order to gain visibility.”
Each chapter of the book looks at the different types of e-history and how they leverage the social Web to become visible and influential. e-history that spreads quickly through networks I call “the viral past.” This is often content designed to go viral, posted by anonymous handles in a click-bait fashion. In this case, the account was @asliceofhistory, an anonymous account that emerged on Twitter last year. We do not know who runs the account: a for-profit company, teenagers in Australia, disinformation agents? But we know from my book that sending e-history viral through networks is a common strategy to garner attention and influence online, as well as to advance an agenda (commercial or political).
Like so much e-history, this vintage newsreel of a purported father and son chimney sweeping duo checked several e-history boxes. Another chapter in my book is devoted to “nostalgia on demand,” and this certainly qualified as a micro-dose of nostalgia in the newsfeed. It was also an example of “the visual past,” where arresting visuals are used to stop you from scrolling. As I write in the book, different e-history use multiple methods to achieve visibility. This meme was a perfect storm: a visually-arresting image of a dirty child laborer; a tinge of nostalgia with its black and white vintage feel; and a media logic that lent itself to virality because it rattled our modern sensibilities and provoked concern over the welfare of the child.
Spreading from platform to platform
The footage also revealed how e-history hops from platform to platform. The original newsreel is owned by a British company called British Pathé, a firm that licenses old newsreel footage for documentaries, television shows and museums. British Pathé is the successor to a long line of companies that date back to an early motion picture house founded by a French family with the surname of Pathé. Their archives were purchased by Warner Brothers, then the Daily Mail, then split off into a separate entity. In the 2010s, they began placing their archives on social media. They uploaded this 1-minute film to YouTube in 2014 with the title “The Three-Year Old! (1933).”
In February 2022, the footage was shared on Imgur, the viral photo- and meme-sharing website. Imgur rewards and incentivizes users to find the most addictive, eye-catching, cringe-worthy and shareable Web content. The footage was posted by a superuser named “GreenPinkBlueDead” who has multiple badges for sending content viral and finding the most clickable memes. The user shared it with the caption, “This is heartbreaking.” We do not know who GreenPinkBlueDead is: a bot, a troll, a disinformation agent, a college student? But the post on Imgur garnered over 1.5 million views and numerous shares.
After making the rounds on Imgur, the video hopped over to Reddit in April 2022. It was posted in numerous different subreddits, including r/capitalism and r/socialism. Many of the posts used the identical caption: “Footage of a 3 year old chimney sweep from the 1930s.” The subreddits also included r/OldSchoolCool, which has 12 million users and which I wrote about in my book. It’s likely from this Reddit that @asliceofhistory found it and re-posted it to Twitter.
The footage was likely staged
So, what is this footage?
Well, it is probably not a 3-year-old chimney sweep from the 1930s. At least, not a real one. To know why requires some context.
A newsreel was a collection of selected news items on a single reel. In Britain they were released biweekly and, in many ways, they mimicked newspapers and magazines: a standard format, each with an issue number, each reel resembling another. They were a commercial product, and being predictable in timing and format helped sustain the business model. In the silent era, newsreels consisted of five stories that were each one-minute long, interspersed with snappy intertitles. According to scholars Nicholas Hilley and Luke McKernan, the emphasis was on having the pictures tell the story.
Similar to the newsreel was the “cinemagazine.” The key difference was the subject matter; whereas a newsreel focused on “hard news,” the cinemagazine focused on fashion, leisure, and light-hearted topics. It was often released on a weekly schedule, and was principally marketed towards women. The first British cinemagazine appeared in 1913.
The 1-minute short of the chimney sweepers was identified by British Pathé as being from cinemagazine issue #634, produced by “Eve’s Film Review.” That cinemagazine, marketed towards women, ran between 1921 and 1933. It was produced by a man named Fred Watts, who also wrote the intertitles. It was designed to be fun, light-hearted, short-form content. It was akin to Cosmopolitan or People magazines today. In other words, it was fluff. It was designed to be fluff, and it was marketed and sold as fluff. It was the click-bait of the 1930s.
It’s important to know, too, that faking and “reconstruction” in newsreels and cinemagazines were common. When authentic footage did not exist for a story, producers and cameramen lifted footage from other sources, staged it, or re-created it. Producers might say publicly that they were only compiling “representational matter.” But privately, according to scholars Hilley and McKernan, they knew they were creating fakes. In newsreels and cinemagazines, cameramen would shoot fake footage to represent a scene. Their job was to get the shots demanded by their editors; “fake” versus “real” was not their concern.
It seems possible, then, that this footage was staged—or “reconstructed,” to use the parlance of the times. That was a common practice of newsreel and cinemagazine producers, and they had no compunction about it. The footage has German signs in the background, so almost certainly it was not shot in Great Britain, as some social media users claimed. Whereas British children were once used to clean chimneys, Parliament voted in 1840 to prohibit the practice and by the 1930s it was illegal in most of Europe. If a father was working his child illegally, it would be odd for him to film it in broad daylight.
A few days later, another anonymous Twitter account, @FakeHistoryHunter, posted a link to a different European photography collection that contained an image of the same duo. This image was labeled as 1930s Berlin. The same duo also appeared on a Polish magazine cover, the Illustrated Daily Courier in 1929. It’s probable, then, that our chimney sweepers were, in actuality, an example of early stock photography—already a thriving industry in the 1920s and 1930s. For reasons we don’t know, a staged camera and film shoot of father-and-son chimney sweepers occurred in Berlin in the late 1920s, and the imagery was used and reused in newsreels, magazines and cinemagazines in the ensuing years, including the newsreel making the rounds online.
History v. e-history
Had this research been provided along with the meme, that might have been an example of what some professionals call “history.” History requires time and effort because the actualities of what happened in the past often contradict what we see on the surface. History requires assessing multiple pieces of evidence and examining broader contexts in order to determine what may have actually occurred.
But that is not what @asliceofhistory or GreenPinkBlueDead did. These social media super-users saw a visually-arresting, nostalgic, and potentially controversial piece of media, accepted it at face value, and spread it across multiple platforms in order to gain likes, retweets and rewards for virality. The meme spread under the guise of it being self-evident, when, in fact, it was anything but. As I write in my book, when we see such e-history, we think we’re learning about history, but what we’re really seeing are a progression of symbols. Social media rewards signals of attention, and the more symbolic and emotionally-charged a piece of content, the more likely it is to become visible online and rewarded by the social media ecosystem. Accuracy becomes an ancillary consideration.
Perhaps most concerning is how little scrutiny we continue to give e-history when we see it, despite two decades of social media experience. One of the respondents on Twitter was a teacher. She wrote that she had used the footage in class as part of a lesson on Lewis Hine (!!). Hine photographed child labor in the U.S. (not Europe), in the early 1900s (not 1930s), of children who were actually exploited and in real danger, which this child was not. By the 1930’s, Hine was working for the U.S. government photographing the construction of the Empire State Building. He died in 1940.
This footage could be used to teach students how newsreel producers in the 20th century manipulated imagery to achieve commercial ends--or how media literacy and historical literacy are critical 21st century skills. But it has little to do with Lewis Hine. Other social media accounts used the video as evidence to prove that capitalism is bad, socialism is bad, England is bad (mind you, it was shot in Germany), that our grandparents were tougher than we are, and that child labor was good (because the child smiles at the end). In other words, functioning as a symbol, e-history gets placed into the service of any number of agendas that people want to advance on social media.
You may say to yourself, this is all seems quite innocuous. But, it becomes far less innocuous when these dynamics are applied to histories that involve racism, anti-Semitism, war, human rights or other subjects. As I found when researching my book, all e-history operates in similar ways to become visible and influential on the social Web. The pattern that played out in this example mirrors how far more nefarious strands of e-history became accepted into the mainstream.
The e-history that conforms to the values of the social Web is the e-history that we see—sometimes innocuous, sometimes not. To better assess these memes when we see them, there are some basic questions we can ask:
Who created this?
Should I accept this at face value?
Do I need more context?
How and why did this come to my attention?
When we understand the dynamics below the surface, we can ask better questions about the material we’re seeing. That’s the lesson from this curious case of the viral vintage newsreel.
P.S. - I made a video breaking down this e-history gone viral. Watch it below, and let me know what you think in the comments. You can also tweet at me @JasonSteinhauer.
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Jason, This is such an insightful post. I saw the meme as well on Twitter and wondered of its provenance. A curse/benefit of writing history, I suppose. Love how this was traced back to the source and a lesson on memes for all of us. It'd be great to find a Twitter feed that offers these vintage newsreels--and then burrows down to their origination point. So much more interesting. Thanks for this!
Nicely done. Thanks for the research and the post.