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  • The Itinerant Films of Arthur J. Higgins
  • Albert Steg (bio)

Just about everything I can tell you about Arthur J. Higgins comes from the films themselves, beginning with his name, which is penned on the “To” line of the Kodak film mailers. I have 114 of these mailers, each with a one-hundred-foot roll of black-and-white 16mm film inside and the name of a small American town on the side, along with film expiration dates ranging from 1936 to 1942. The towns range broadly along the middle swath of the United States, from Texas to Wisconsin. The films are full of pictures of people—mostly children streaming out of their schools and men loafing in front of small shops and gas stations. A woman beating a rug on her lawn, a man unloading canisters from a milk truck, or a boy puffing on a tuba are all we see of work, for the films are primarily interested in faces, not industries, and capture as many as possible in the three or four minutes available on one hundred feet of film.

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Valders, Wisconsin (1938). Arthur J. Higgins Collection; courtesy of the author.

Winding through the collection, in reel after reel, you see children ushered out of school doors, often from youngest to oldest. The films give the impression of a generational faucet having been opened up in taps all over the land, the progeny flowing out and growing taller until the scenes shift to dusty main streets where their elders go about their business or loaf in front of the hardware store. The teachers are usually youngish and smiling, except for one older man who you’d think must be the principal until it registers that the same suited figure appears in all the films. This, then, must be Arthur J. Higgins—and so the person running the camera, at least in the school shots, must be someone else. It seems likely to have been Mrs. Higgins, and although I have yet to locate any direct corroboration that the man is Higgins and the photographer his wife, I will write under that assumption. [End Page 115]

Itinerant Films on the Open Market

To describe the Higginses’ film production and the disposition of the 23,400 feet (100′ × 234 reels) of small-town footage I know them to have shot between the years 1936 and 1942, I will recount in some detail how I came to acquire roughly half of that footage in that wonderful and infuriating marketplace, eBay. Archivists often express an antipathy toward the site, where unique cultural and historical artifacts are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Many archives have standing policies against paying for donations, and there is something naked and unsettling about seeing items that “belong in an archive” consigned to the auction block. Cryptic eBay usernames mask deep-pocketed collectors who squirrel away their takings in some unknown trove.1 Even worse, sellers can seem nefarious in their seemingly bottomless access to precious materials to sell and their willingness to “part out” coherent collections for sale in multiple auctions to gain the greatest profit per item, historical record be damned.

The market for home movies on eBay was the subject of a conference panel, “Ebay: More Than a Four-Letter Word,” at the 2007 Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference in Rochester, where I shared my experience acquiring the Higgins films along with Bill O’Farrell, whose particular eBay nemesis routinely cut up single reels of film into tenor fifty-foot segments to sell separately, and Snowden Becker, who shared quantitative data she had gathered on the quantity and selling prices of home movies on the site. The upshot of the session was that while, as archivists, we may lament significant moving image materials changing hands in such a market, (1) this is not always necessarily a bad thing in itself insofar as many of the materials that make it to eBay are already orphaned and might otherwise have wound up in a landfill and (2) archivists who care about this sort of material might reconsider their policies prohibiting acquisition through purchase, given that mission...


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pp. 115-125
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