The medium of cinema appeared in the mid 1890s, an era when the United States was still expanding into one of the world's major colonialist powers.  The Spanish American War of 1898 resulted in the United States' gaining control of Puerto Rico, The Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, and part of Samoa.  The United States itself was still in the process of formation.  Idaho, Montana, and North and South Dakota had become states in 1889, and Arizona and New Mexico would not enter the Union until 1912.  During the late nineteenth century, railroading, oil, tobacco, and other industries were expanding rapidly, and in 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in an attempt to limit the growth of monopolies.

Due to hard times in southern and eastern Europe, a new wave of immigrants arrived on American shores after 1890.  Living mostly in ethnic communities within large cities, these non-English speakers would form a sizabl audience for the largely visual entertainment  medium of silent cinema.

The first decade of the new century saw a progressivist impulse in America, under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.  There were movements to give women the vote, to prohibit child labor, to enforce antitrust laws, and in general to institute government regulations to protect consumers. This era was also one of virulent racism, scarred by many lynchings.  African-American progressives formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.