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Origins of American Animation, 1900–1921
Created and maintained by the Library of Congress.
Reviewed Aug. 2011.

Mounted in 1999, Origins of American Animation is among the very earliest online exhibits. Composed of twenty-one full-length animations and two fragments, the exhibit documents the earliest years of animation pioneers. Animations include J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906); one from Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps theatrical cartoon series (1916–1925); several examples from Raoul Barré's seven-film Phables series (1915–1916); and two Winsor McCay offerings, including Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and The Centaurs (1921), among others. Probably the best examples are Leon Searl’s Krazy Kat cartoons. Like many of the other Library of Congress online collections, Origins of Animation is accessible by browsing a subject index, an alphabetical title list, a chronological title list, or via a keyword search. The results are displayed as a list.

Stills from Krazy Kat, Bugologist

Accompanying the exhibit is a special presentation, “Notes on the Origins of American Animation,” that provides basic information about the cartoon clips and the animators. (The Web site indicates that the clip commentaries are essentially liner notes from another project and are fairly brief.) The animation clips themselves are available in three formats: RealMedia, MPEG, and QuickTime. Of these, the MPEG option is the most useful; the QuickTime version is postage-stamp sized and RealMedia is an outdated format. I can happily report, however, that the Library of Congress has made its Origins of Animation cartoons and four additional examples available on YouTube. These clips are much larger and can be downloaded for classroom use. One last summary collection of related materials, Collection Connections, augments the archive. Unfortunately, there is no teaching module accompanying the exhibit.

If you teach the history of animation, Origins of Animation and its YouTube companion furnish solid resources for presenting animation’s early development; even if an instructor does not teach a specialized course, animation can be still be useful. Because Krazy Kat began in 1913 as a George Herriman comic strip it is easy, for example, for students to see animation’s early dependence on print media and elaborate on this relationship. Examining later revivals of Krazy Kat reveals a different sensibility as the character reflects the aesthetic and social concerns of a later time. An instructor might wish, for instance, to compare Krazy Kat with its modern descendants, especially Felix the Cat and his “magic bag of tricks.” Both the Sunday comics and early cartoons appealed to immigrant populations, and an analysis of early Krazy Kat cartoons suggests why immigrants found the cat and his mouse paramour, Ignatz, so helpful in becoming American.

Paula Petrik
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia