James Duncan Phillips film collection, 1925-mid-1940s

Collection Type

  • Video recordings and motion pictures





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The James Duncan Phillips Film Collection is made up of 125 reels transferred to DVDs #6-26. The dates span from 1925 to the early to mid-1940s. Of the 125 reels, 28 are in color, many turned magenta, but a few with very good color. The running time is 16.44 hours.

Worthy of note is the extensive footage of James Duncan and his wife Nannie's on their Africa trip from Cape Town to Cairo (AF99-128). This trip alone is made up of 30 reels and almost 4.5 hours of footage. Some of the inter-titles are hand-illustrated (by Nannie?). Other travels include England and Wales in 1925 (AF52-54), two trips to Europe/the Mediterranean in 1927 and 1929 (AF61, AF63-69 and AF88-96); a trip out to the western United States in 1928 (AF73), and a trip from Florida to Texas in 1931 (AF130-132). Some of the travel includes "the Sparrow Crusade," a self-described group of travelers made up of James Duncan Phillips, his wife Nannie, Ellen Laight, Helen C. Fine, and Katherine F. Wellman. Of particular note is AF61 entitled, "The Sparrow Crusade Sailing" with its hand-made inter-titles and illustrations.

For those interested in the history of ocean liner travel, leisure activities are depicted aboard the S.S. Adriatic (of the White Star fleet, later the Cunard-White Star, Limited line) in 1927 (AF61) and the S.S. Carinthia (of the Cunard line) in 1929 (AF88).

Other smaller trips include the following: Lake Placid, New York in 1929 (AF79-80); scenes from the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, a military academy founded in 1868, featuring an African American military band (AF74); footage from West Point, New York in 1931 (AF129); horse and dog races at Kellogg House in California in 1936-1937 (AF149); Huntington and Bakersfield, California in 1937 (AF152); Nannie and Duncan's film of Yosemite, California , spliced with Burton Holmes film (AF181), and Cape Breton, Canada in the early 1930s (AF137).

Most of the last 20 reels (AF157-178) are color and taken in Florida in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They include the Lake Placid Club in Florida and wildlife, mainly birds.

Other highlights include footage of "Donibristle," Duncan and Nannie's home in Topsfield, Massachusetts (AF139, AF147, AF148, AF150 and AF151, to name a few). Particularly entertaining is a dramatic production of a house robbery at "Donibristle" (AF57). Local events include: Chestnut Street Days in Salem, Massachusetts in 1926 and 1939 (AF59 and AF156 - but AF156 appears to be too damaged to be useful); the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts circa 1926-1927 (AF77-78); a parade in Salem, possibly during Chestnut Street Days (AF85); and a costumed re-enactment of the voyage of the Arbella with scenes of Pioneer Village in the summer of 1930 (AF98).

A few weddings and wedding parties were filmed: Elizabeth Wells's wedding in South Africa on October 18, 1930 (AF102); J. Freeman's wedding in 1932 (AF136); Harriet Adam's wedding on June 23, 1934 (AF144); "Barry's wedding" at West Point in 1935 (AF145); and "David's wedding" and "Huntington wedding," circa 1925-1926 (AF146).

Source: Phillips Family Film Collection finding aid.


Descriptive Terms

ocean liners
military academies (buildings)
bands (ensembles)
national parks
wilderness areas
living history museums
sailing ships
home movies
motion pictures (visual work)

Physical Description

97 reels : black-and-white and silent ; 16 millimeter
28 reels : color and silent ; 16 millimeter

Custodial History

The original 16mm film reels were gathered from various locations in trunks and boxes and sorted into three separate collections based upon the address written on the reel box and other items that were stored in the trunks or boxes. The three collections are: The Stephen Phillips Film Collection, The James Duncan Phillips Film Collection, and the Professional Film Collection. Once each reel had been separated into a collection, the films were organized chronologically by year. If the box was not labeled with a year, the edge codes stamped on the edges of the film provided the year of the film stock's manufacture. This gave an approximate date to the footage recorded on the film. In most cases, the film was used within a couple years of its manufacture date. Once in chronological order, each reel was assigned an Archives Film (AF) number, given a visual inspection and condition report, and all of the handwritten material on the reel boxes or cans was recorded.
Of the 210 reels gathered, 11 reels had to be discarded due to extreme mold growth and rust. The remaining 199 reels of film were transported to Northeast Historic Film (NHF) in Bucksport, Maine for conservation. The conservation work was funded in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The technicians at NHF cleaned each reel and transferred the film to archival cores and stored the newly conserved film in archival film cans. Once the conservation work was complete, the museum received a grant from the Essex National Heritage Commission (ENHC) to transfer the reels onto a Beta SP master copy and a DVD viewing copy. Of the 199 reels conserved, 193 reels were transferred to DVD viewing copies. Five of the reels were unable to be transferred due to shrinkage, and one reel was comprised of unprocessed film, that needs to be developed before it can be viewed.

Collection Code


Collection Name

Phillips family film collection

Reference Code



Cape Town (Province of the Western Cape, South Africa)
Cairo (Cairo, Egypt)
Wales (United Kingdom) [country]
Mediterranean Sea [sea]
United States, Western (United States) [general region]
Florida (United States)
Texas (United States)
Lake Placid (Essex county, New York state)
Hampton (Hampton Indep. City, Virginia)
West Point (Orange county, New York state)
Bakersfield (Kern county, California)
Yosemite National Park (Mariposa county, California) [national park]
Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia, Canada) [island]
Lake Placid (Highlands county, Florida)
Topsfield (Essex county, Massachusetts)
Salem (Essex county, Massachusetts)
Pomona (Los Angeles county, California)

Record Details


Phillips, James Duncan, 1876-1954 (Filmmaker)

Material Type

home movies
motion pictures (visual work)

Other People

Phillips, Nannie Jencks (Borden), 1877-1963
Laight, Ellen
Fine, Helen C.
Wellman, Katherine F.
Wells, Elizabeth
Adams, Harriet

Other Organizations

Cunard White Star, ltd.
Cunard Steamship Company, ltd.
Hampton Institute


African Americans
intertitles (motion pictures)
Dog racing
Horse racing
birds (animals)
Amateur films
Chestnut Street Day (Salem, Mass.)


Much of the color film has turned magenta with a few exceptions. A few are in very good condition.

Description Level


Historical/Biographical Note

Historical/Biographical Note

James Duncan Phillips, second son of the Honorable Stephen Henry and Margaret (Duncan) Phillips and uncle to Stephen Phillips, was born in San Francisco, California in 1876. He attended Harvard College as had the two previous generations of Phillips men and graduated in 1897 magna cum laude. Less than one year later he joined the publishing firm of Houghton Mifflin Company and worked there until his retirement in 1941.

Mr. Phillips married Nannie J. Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts in 1907, with the wedding taking place in England. They traveled widely both before and after marriage. In the late 1920s Mr. Phillips added home movies of their trips to the photographs and extensive journals that they already kept of their travels.

Due to a serious heart attack in 1936, his business activities became limited. He filled his time with historical research and writing. Numerous articles and books, most of which were about Salem's "Great Age of Sail," were published during the last twenty years of his life.

Source: Phillips Family Film Collection finding aid.



The summary by catalogue number lists the films by AF number and by DVD. The AF numbers are organized by collection, the first collection, (highlighted in yellow) was created by Stephen Phillips (1907-1971), the second collection (highlighted in blue) was created by James Duncan Phillips (1876-1954), the third collection (highlighted in green) was created by professional film companies and corporations. The original film title that was written on the box (if any) is notated first in "quotes". When there was no title written on the box the museum staff created titles for the unmarked reels based on the footage contained on the film-these titles are notated second in [brackets]. In some cases, the handwritten title on the outside of the box did not match the footage recorded on the reel. This is notated in (parentheses) between the original title and the museum title.

The Summary by catalogue number lists single reels in black ink and groups of reels by different colored ink. The colored ink reels are groups of films that were taken on a trip to a particular place by the creator. For example, James Duncan and Nannie Phillips' 1930 trip from Capetown to Cairo. A more detailed finding aid, listing specific people and places is available for research upon request.