Patrons witnessed the underground evolution of the sex-film industry as the Museum of Sex recaptured the clandestine celluloid of the twentieth century in Stags, Smokers, and Blue Movies: The Origins of American Pornographic Film.
Hard-core pornographic films, each the 10-12 minute length of a single reel of 35 mm celluloid stock, began to appear around 1907, a few years after the first soft-core “nudies” that depicted solo women in states of undress. They were shot independently in Hungary, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Argentina, North Africa, and the United States, usually by semi-professionals on the margins of emerging film industries. Most early examples have been lost. Some were shot for local use in bordellos; some used incompatible technical formats that were abandoned before the reels could be copied; others disappeared because they were captured on highly perishable nitrate film stock; still others, especially those from Austria and Germany, would be destroyed during World War II. Only a few survive from the years 1910-1919; two are from the United States.
In the 1920s, France, Germany, and the United States produced about two dozen each. From 1930 to 1965, the United States produced more stags (usually on 16mm) than any other country, save for brief periods in the early 1950s and 1960s, when Britain and Denmark respectively took the lead in production. Government-sanctioned destruction, haphazard loss, re-editing, and retitling render an exact count difficult, but it is estimated that approximately 1700 survive from around the world.
In the United States, these outlaw films became known as “stags,” taking their name from “stag party,” a social gathering of males where films were exhibited. The clandestine, ritual characteristics of their exhibition defined their style and content until the 1960s, when newer, more public and then more private technologies (the 8mm loop, the feature, the videocassette, and the DVD) displaced the stag.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, waning censorship coupled with newer technologies made it possible for producers to cater to the wide range of specific tastes of global consumers. Today the United States alone produces more than 10,000 hard-core pornographic videocassettes and DVDs annually.