Century-old promo film highlights textiles, tourism: Glimpses of Greenville with John Nolan

As Greenville’s textile industry grew quickly in the early 20th century, the city emerged into a more a more prominent regional and national spotlight. Researching this era has uncovered some interesting efforts by the city and organizations to promote business and tourism.

A particularly interesting find was a notice in The Greenville News about the Greenville Chamber of Commerce’s utilization of the early use of motion pictures for promotion. Motion pictures first appeared in America in the 1890s and were brief, simple and more often informative. By the 1910s, films began to take on a more narrative and entertaining feel.

However, the Greenville Chamber’s 1912 promo film, “Greenville, S.C., the Textile Center of the South,” took on a marketing role. Subject matter for the movie included visitors arriving at the Southern depot on West Washington Street on train No. 37, the train that stopped in Greenville on its journey from the big cities of New York and New Orleans. In keeping with the title of the film, textile mills featured included a few of the “million dollar mills,” which would have included the newly opened Dunean and Judson mills around the former Spanish-American war Camp Wetherill site. Dunean’s innovative 1,700 single-drive loom motors were prominently displayed with sweeping motion shots. The Woodside mill, of course, was a major feature of publicity as the recently proclaimed “largest cotton mill under one roof in the world.”

1921 Chamber of Commerce civic and comm journal title copy
The Greenville Chamber of Commerce has played a crucial role in city promotion and development over the years. Beyond creating the 1912 motion picture, in the 1920s it published a monthly journal. Photo courtesy of the author, John Nolan

In true marketing fashion, film audiences were also introduced to Greenville’s favorite places to eat, play and stay. While today’s downtown Greenville has an array of 14 large hotels, there were only three — barely — in 1912. The Imperial Hotel had just opened on the corner of West Washington and Richardson streets. The film covered not only the Imperial’s accommodations but also its elegant dining room. The opulent Ottaray Hotel at the corner of North Main and Oak streets — now the site of the Hyatt Regency — was also proudly touted to the captive film audiences.

While promo videos from today’s Chamber of Commerce, VisitGreenvilleSC and countless social media posts would inevitably feature the Reedy River corridor of parks, the 1912 chamber’s film steered clear of showing that area of town.

Segments of the film touched on the “retail and business district of the city,” which would have generally spanned from the railroad tracks in the West End to North Street. Prominent commercial destinations included Smith & Bristow clothing, Hale’s Jewelers, The Red Hot Racket Store, Meyers-Arnold, Busy Bee Café, and Sebyt & Carter bookstore. Greenville’s modern streetcars were also shown.

This notice of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce’s new “Textile Center of the South” film was announced in the Dec. 30, 1912, issue of The Greenville News. From the collection of the author, John Nolan

This motion picture would have been shown in many big cities and business events to “show off” and attract more investment to Greenville, and it worked. Within the next few years, Greenville was secured as the hosting city for the newly created Southern Textile Exposition and lived up to the hype of the film.

When I came across the newspaper notice of this short motion picture a few years ago, I was so intrigued to learn that “little old Greenville” was showing such progressive means to get the word out. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised, though, as over 100 years later we are continuing the tradition of being a vibrant, growing and forward-looking city with a lot to offer. Personally, I think of this film as one of the “holy grails” of city artifacts. If we could ever see with our eyes what this cross-section of city life was like in 1912 in motion pictures, what an incredible experience that would be.

John M. Nolan is owner of Greenville History Tours (greenvillehistorytours.com) and author of “A Guide to Historic Greenville, SC” and “Lost Restaurants of Greenville, SC.”

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