Spotlight: Learning More About Female Firefighters From Universal News Production Files

The Universal Newsreel Collection chronicles some of the most important historical, cultural and sporting events and trends of the early to mid 20th Century. Among the footage of military invasions, coronations, and Olympics it is possible to find footage of lesser known citizens who also made their mark on history. One such story comes from a 1930 release covering the “smoke-eater-ettes” from Chalfant, Pennsylvania. The all-female firefighter brigade was featured in the newsreel as an oddity but the group was made up of trailblazers in their field.

Photograph of female firefighters included in the production files for UN-UN-2-65

Women have served as firefighters in small numbers for almost 200 years. The first known female firefighter is believed to have been Molly Williams, an enslaved woman in New York City who became a member of Oceanus Engine Company #11 around 1815. Today, women make up a growing percentage of firefighters (around 6200 currently work as full-time, career firefighters and officers). But, 90 years ago women seldom entered the profession due to societal restrictions. A few all female fire brigades existed during between 1910 and 1920 in Silver Spring, Maryland and Los Angeles, California and certainly there were others but their names and experiences have not been recorded, lost over time.

Clip from UN-UN-2-65

In this case, thanks to the production files that accompany the Universal Newsreel collection, the names of the women in this featured story are known to researchers. And despite the fact no soundtrack was donated to NARA, the production files include the narrator’s script allowing researchers to understand the way these women were portrayed to audiences through narration.

The script from UN-UN-2-65 for the “Smoke-eater-ettes” story.

Production files that accompany Record Group MCA/Universal Pictures Collection, 1929-1967 vary from story to story and are organized by year, month and date of release and then by story number. Some stories do not have associated production files while other files include the script, story synopsis sheet, and release sheet, photographs of subjects covered in the footage, newspaper articles and event programs. For example , the production files from stories covering football games, track and field events, plays and concerts often times include the program and a newspaper story about the event.

The production file for the “Smoke-eater-ettes” story, UN-UN-2-65 includes the release sheet, story synopsis sheet, script, and a photograph of the women firefighters. From these records we learn that the footage was captured in July or August of 1930 in Chalfant, Pennsylvania, a town near Pittsburgh. The women featured are active members Chief Sara Long, Agnes Mallick, Edna Onijfer, Mrs. Fred Simmon, and driver Mary Feroris. In this case, the script provides researchers with the overall tone of the story. From its starting line, “Here’s another male occupation all shot” and continuing to “the girls can put out anything from the cat to a roaring blaze” researchers can deduce that the story was meant to highlight the oddity of what the women were doing. Without the script it would be hard to know the reasoning why the clip was included in the original release.

The Universal Newsreel collection is just one example of a series in NARA’s moving image holdings that is enhanced by information in production files. Some military-produced edited film series include production files with scripts, discussion points and paperwork documenting the budget of each film while other collections include on-set photographs and newspaper articles. In any case, the production files add excellent supplemental information to research.

This newsreel can be viewed in its entirety in NARA’s catalog, including additional stories on Charles Lindbergh, construction on the first elevated automobile highway, airmail surprises, women’s diving, and a story featuring women’s baseball teams Niles and Oakland, which was written about last year, Spotlight: Universal Newsreel Highlights Female Baseball Players.

Title card from UN-UN-2-65 for the “Smoke-eater-ettes” story.

Websites Consulted:

Women in Fire