I recently came across the YouTube channel of Periscope Films, a company that archives old footage, mostly documentaries and training films from the 1920s onwards. Much of Periscope’s inventory deals with military matters, especially those of the Allies in World War II, but their collection is extremely broad covering many subjects. I first became aware of the company when I came across a 1939 information film about a US factory manufacturing anti-aircraft shells. It’s a subject I have little to no interest in, but I started to watch it out of curiosity and was quickly hooked.
I’d always assumed that a mundane item such as an artillery shell would be stamped out en masse by a giant machine, but it turned out that each had to be manufactured by hand. It was a long, complex process that had to be checked every step of the way, and the film showed workers labouring over lathes, carrying hunks of white hot steel from machine to machine and painstakingly measuring the diameters and lengths of pieces of turned metal. It was a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a mid-century industrial worker and it struck me that this could be ideal reference for someone setting a story in that era, even if it was only to flesh out the backstory of a side character.
You might think you could imagine the broad details of this type of factory work, but watching a film like this opened my eyes to details I wouldn’t have guessed at. For example, the fact that workers carried out their jobs in their own clothes rather than uniform boiler suits or that the man tasked with spraying shells with anti-acidic paint (pictured) would be equipped with a pair of googles rather than a respirator. Introducing details like this in a story can add valuable verisimilitude to your manuscript and might even spark off some good ideas for plot development.
The Periscope Films website (https://stock.periscopefilm.com/) has a searchable database and the titles below are just some of the films that a search on ‘factory’ brought up. It’s a varied collection that helps illustrate the choice on offer and nearly all these films can be viewed instantly, and for free, on YouTube.
Period research is always improved by looking at the media of the day, whether that’s Greek statuary, Anglo-Saxon poems or Victorian newspapers, but don’t forget the moving picture, they can offer an unparalleled glimpse into the past.
1930s Cadbury factory footage, Bournville, UK.
1940s US Navy the naval gun factory, Washington, D.C.
1966 Boeing 50th anniversary ‘The Little Factory at the Edge of Town’.
1926 Friestedt family home movies of Player Piano Roll factory, Arizona.
1960s Hershey factory tour, Pennsylvania.
1970s Chevrolet product options for automobiles.
1940s ‘A Trip Through Grape Nuts’ Post Cereal factory tour
1967 Soviet Union newsreel trade expo - Moskvitch car factory, Melkus sports car
1930s Fuller Brushes factory promotional film for door to door salesmen.