For as long as you've been watching movies, you've likely heard them—and the entire industry surrounding them—referred to as the silver screen. Maybe you assumed the term was the work of some long-forgotten Old Hollywood marketeer who thought it imbued black-and-white films with a sense of glamour that something like “the grayscale screen” couldn’t. But the real origin of the phrase is less about the motion pictures than the screen itself.
In the early 20th century, when projection technology was still far from producing the high-resolution images we enjoy in modern movie theaters, industry innovators started looking for ways to make the pictures pop. They found that coating the screen’s surface with a layer of metallic paint (though not necessarily actual silver) heightened the contrast and cut down on blurriness.
It’s unclear who first happened upon this discovery. Credit is often given to Harry C. Williams, a Kentucky-born circus stagehand-turned-projectionist based in Akron, Ohio. Williams started painting screens silver back in the 1920s and eventually did become a pioneer in screen production. In the 1940s, he designed a vinyl one—whose metallic sheen initially came from fish scales—that helped usher in the shift to plastic screens. His company, Williams Screen Co., was hugely successful throughout the ’50s.
That said, silver screens predated Williams’s early manufacturing endeavors by at least a couple decades. In 1900, the Isle of Wight Observer advertised an upcoming exhibition that would feature “The Latest Cinematograph (Living Pictures on the Silver Screen).” The technology began to catch on around 1910, when newspapers frequently reported on the installation of these shiny new screens in theaters across the U.S. and Canada.
“The result is highly gratifying as the subjects stand out brighter even than before, the outlines being clear and sharp,” The Province wrote of the screen at Vancouver’s Majestic Theatre in July 1909.
These days, silver screen is often used metonymically to refer to the movies as a whole, rather than an actual screen. But silver screens aren’t completely obsolete: They come in handy for 3D films, and there’s even special silver paint you can buy to create your own.
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