Cheese Mites: How Cheese Eating Pests Became Cinematic Stars

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Aired in 1903, The Unseen World was a series of short films shot through microscopes -- the first "scientific" films made for the public. And Cheese Mites , a brief glimpse at cheese mites scuttling and jostling over a surface of Stilton, was the show's smash hit.

The film was created by American entrepreneur Charles Urban in collaboration with microscope enthusiast Francis Martin Duncan. In line with the style of most early cinema, The Unseen World was presented as a buoyant spectacle, a novel source of fun and entertainment. The series of microscopic films first played at London's Alhambra Music Hall as part of a full program that also included a few moralistic animal films (such as The Greedy American Toad), 15 short films on bees, and the illusionist Servais Le Roy performing his most famous trick, "Asrah the Floating Princess."
It was Cheese Mites, however, that filled houses for months. And even elitist scientists graced the theater to watch it. The Morning Post wrote of the phenomenon, "People like to be interested, and they don't in the least mind being interested by something worth knowing."

The Cheese Industry Steps In

All this attention, however, concerned the cheese industry. Although Stilton mites were well-known -- in one of the first references to Stilton cheese, in 1772, novelist Daniel Defoe took note of "mites so thick around it that they bring a spoon for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese" -- the cheese industry feared that Cheese Mites' success would cause cheese sales to drop (sales of microscopes, on the other hand, were soaring). In fact, faux disgust was part of the fun. The director had insisted on playing up the gross-out factor by adding a final shot of a man revolted by what he sees in his Stilton, and throwing it away.

Under pressure from cheesemakers, the British government finally shut down Cheese Mites, making it one of the first films to be banned -- despite all the erotic, violent, and graphic material onscreen at the time. But Urban's design to market science films didn't flag; and he went on to work with Percy Smith, whose hugely successful Birth of a Flower (1910) and Secrets of Nature (1930) guaranteed the future of nature films.
Want more from cheese historian David Clark? Be sure to check out his posts on Sardinia's Black-market Maggot Cheese, 3 Cheeses that caused Political Riots, and A Brief History of "American" Cheese. 

January 9, 2009 - 10:09am
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