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History of the Mutoscope

The mutoscope is a coin operated, hand cranked, animated picture machine. When you insert a penny and turn the crank, a small bulb lights up and a reel of still photos fall one by one in front of the viewer into which you look.

Approximately 850 still photos with blank cards in between them are on the mutoscope reel. They are printed from about fifty feet of regular movie film.

Introduced in 1895, the mutoscope was one of the most popular and profitable machines in the penny arcade. Its popularity was so great that in just one location in New York City in 1903, the arcade owner took in over $100,000. Marcus Loew, the theater chain magnate, apparently made his fortune in setting up mutoscopes and penny arcades. Unlike most other kinds of amusement devices, the mutoscope was popular well into the 1950's.

The feature that makes the mutoscope so popular is the viewer's ability to control the speed of the showing and even stop it for a few seconds to get a closer look. It also fulfills the deep-rooted desire that we all have to "peek" through and see something we maybe shouldn't see.

The most popular reels were the "Girly Shows," especially those with alluring titles that virtually always promised more than they delivered. Wouldn't you be enticed by such titles as: French Dressing, X-Ray Gown, Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath. Although there was no censorship board for mutoscope reels like there were for movies, the International Mutoscope Company made sure that the morality squads, which were in vogue in those days, would not attack the appropriateness of this type of entertainment.

The comic reels were the next most popular subjects. Here again the titles were enticing: "He Broke Her Heart, She Broke His Neck;" "The Great Spaghetti Eating Contest;" "Rival Piano Wreckers." Other popular subjects included westerns and sport subjects.

The early mutoscopes were large cast iron cases that had the appearance of a clamshell and were referred to as "Clamshell Mutoscopes." Later models were sleeker and more modern in design.




Mutoscopes in Budapest

While visiting Budapest, Hungary, like most tourists I visited the Matthias Church located on top of the Buda Castle hill.

The church and the viewing terrace, called the Fishman’s Bastion, is one of the most visited historic sites in Budapest, Hungary. The church has breathtaking colors & designs inspired by orientalism with Neo-Gothic features. Its steeples overlook the Danube River and the Pest side of Budapest. At night the church is lighted up for all to see from most parts of the city.

The church was used as a coronation church by Hungarian kings for centuries, also a mosque for over 150 years by the Ottoman Turks, and, now a thriving Catholic church. The current building was constructed in the late Gothic style in the second half of the 14th century and was extensively restored in the late 19th century.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed that in the middle of the terrace there was a clamshell mutoscope. It was weatherworn but when I put a coin in it, it was fully working showing views of the Fishman’s Bastion and views from the terrace showing the Pest side of Budapest.

First some history:

The Mutoscope was an early motion picture device. It worked on the same principle as the flip book. Rather than being bound into a booklet, the cards were attached to a circular core, like a huge Rolodex. A reel typically held about 850 cards, giving a viewing time of about a minute.

Mutoscopes were coin-operated. The patron viewed the cards through a single lens enclosed by a hood, similar to the viewing hood of a stereoscope. The cards were generally lit electrically, but the reel was driven by means of a geared-down hand crank. Each machine held only a single reel and was dedicated to the presentation of a single short subject, described by a poster affixed to the machine.

Mutoscopes were originally manufactured from 1895 to 1909 for the American Mutoscope Company. In the 1920s the Mutoscope was licensed to William Rabkin who started his own company, the International Mutoscope Reel Company, which manufactured new reels and also machines in a variety of models from 1926 until 1949.

Mutoscopes were a popular feature of amusement arcades in the US and pleasure piers in the UK from the turn of century to the 1960s when video games became popular. During the 1970s they became a popular with collectors of old coin operated machines. Today they are increasingly in short supply and the original clamshell models can command prices in excess of $7000.

So who put it on the terrace of this popular tourist location? And Why?

My first ill conceived notion was that the mutoscope was placed there in the late 1890s at the same time when the church was extensively restored and the mutoscope was first manufactured. Given that the area and the church was bombed during WWII I quickly looked for an alternative explanation.

A plaque on the mutoscope in Hungarian had the words CityScope on it. A google search and a google translation revealed the following.

CityScope is a tourist oriented public relations company. It was formed in 2014, Hungary with the aim of bringing a fantastic invention back to life which has a hundred years behind itself.

The CityScope team wanted to make the mutoscopee – originating from the late19th century – available for more and more people throughout the whole country. They viewed it as not just a tourist highlight but an entertaining source of history.

The ultimate goal is to give another context to our world heritage and cultural values besides simple guided tours and guidebooks.

The first CityScope machine was placed near the well-known Budapest Funicular looking over the Szechenyi Chain Bridge.

The second unique stylish cityscope machine was placed as we indicated very close to the Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion.

CityScope is planning to place more and more vintage machines in the city with plenty of information on old time Budapest.

copywrite: Ken Durham, February, 2020

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