Today, we take for granted that moving images are used to educate. Generations of school children grew up with teachers turning down the lights, rolling in a film projector or television and flipping a switch or pressing a button to start the show. It might be surprising to learn that there was a time when the case had to be made for the value of motion pictures in education. In the summer of 1923, Laura Thornborough and Don Carlos Ellis published Motion Pictures in Education, a book instructing teachers in how to use films in their classrooms. The book is cited by scholars of educational film as one of the first major works focused on the subject. One unexpected outcome of our work during the Covid pandemic was the discovery of Laura Thornburgh (Thornborough was used as a pen name) scattered through early film records held at the National Archives.
At the beginning of April 2020, NARA staff shifted focus to telework projects. The Moving Image and Sound Branch and Motion Picture Preservation Lab began transcribing thousands of pages of production files associated with the Army Signal Corps’ Historical Film series that had recently been digitized as part of a multi-year project funded by an anonymous donor. An early email from our supervisor, Criss Austin, mentioned that she had noticed a woman’s name on an instruction sheet dated 1936. While women often served as editors or scenario writers in the early days of film, we had seen little evidence of women working on military films, or really any early government films, so this was cause for excitement.
But who was Laura Thornburgh? Basic biographical information online told us that she was from Tennessee and her father was a Republican congressman who had joined the Union Army during the Civil War. She had access to education and travel, and wrote for a local newspaper.
We were able to piece together more of Thornburgh’s story using a variety of online sources available to us while working from home, primarily in the Media History Digital Library. A notice in the December 11, 1920 issue of Moving Picture World tells us that Thornburgh worked for the USDA from 1918 to 1920 as a scenario editor and had spent the previous eight months editing and titling films for the government agency before joining a commercial film venture in New York. The following year, Thornburgh submitted a news item to American Cinematographer about her intention to build a “national film library of knowledge” to tell the “film story of the United States.” The films collected would focus on the resources and industries of the nation, region by region. In 1924, the year after the publication of her landmark book on educational film, an item in Exhibitors Herald announced that Thornburgh would be teaching a summer class at George Washington University, entitled “Visual Aids in Education, with Special Reference to Motion Pictures.”
By the time we finished transcribing the Historical Film series production files, we found Thornburgh’s name listed as editor on 46 titles. A search in the catalog brought up two additional titles in the United States Department of Agriculture’s series of films for the Extension Service dating to 1931 and we found another because it was mentioned in a botanical garden’s online newsletter. We do not yet know what led to Thornburgh rejoining the USDA Motion Picture Service in the early 1930s or how she ended up editing the Signal Corps films in 1936, although it is possible that the work was outsourced to the USDA Motion Picture Service since they had a large in-house lab. However, given that we know from Moving Picture World that Thornburgh worked on 30 reels or more of film for the USDA in 1920 and wrote scenarios for two years, there are likely many more of her titles to be found in our holdings. It may require digging into the USDA’s textual records, but we hope they will be uncovered someday. Although records of Thornburgh’s advocacy are currently more accessible due to the many people and organizations scanning contemporary film publications for the Media History Digital Library, there is still much more to learn about the films that Laura Thornburgh made.
After Laura Thornburgh’s foray into educational film advocacy and production, she switched her efforts to championing Great Smoky Mountains National Park, publishing a guidebook in 1937. She is primarily remembered for her writing and photography related to the region, although I am hoping she will be given equal recognition as an educational film pioneer.
–Photographs by Laura Thornburgh on the National Park Service website
–A master’s thesis about the role Thornburgh and two other women played in roles in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
-Thornburgh’s book, Motion Pictures in Education, fully available online