Florence Lawrence was born into show business. Her mother was a Vaudeville stalwart, so Florence first trod the boards aged three, in a cutesy act where she was dubbed "Baby Flo, The Child Wonder Whistler" (apparently what passed for entertainment was a lot different then).
But Florence grew up, and got the hell out of kitsch, whistling-based entertainment. In 1906 she landed her first film role. Within just a few months, Florence appeared in dozens of films—the turn-around for silent films in this early era was ridiculous.
Thanks to her relentless work ethic, strong acting ability, and the fact she was bloody stunning, Florence quickly landed her big break, the plum part of Daniel Boone's daughter in Boone, a biopic of (unsurprisingly) Daniel Boone.
For this honor, Florence got to stand in the freezing cold for hours on end while being paid a pittance. Glamorous this was not. But Vitagraph, the studio behind Boone, loved Florence and almost immediately she was signed up and starring as the lead in countless films.
However, Vitagraph wasn’t the only studio that had fallen for Flo. Biograph Studios was the industry big-hitter, and they wanted Florence on their roster. With an offer of more money and endless opportunities, Florence would have been stupid to turn Biograph down.
And so by 1908, just two years after starting out in film, Florence was Biograph’s main attraction. Her face was plastered everywhere, and she was a box office draw like no other. Suddenly, Florence had become the world's first film star—but there was just one caveat: nobody knew who she was.
You see, Biograph didn’t credit their on-screen talent. And so Florence’s name never appeared anywhere near her films. And despite their desperate pleas, fans were never offered her real name. She was known only as The Biograph Girl.
Sadly, things weren’t all rosy, and Florence was fired from Biograph after trying to source her own work. But Flo wasn’t done. She joined an independent film, The Broken Oath, with the films posters and promo all featuring Florence by name.
Now Florence wasn’t just the first film star, she was the first titled film star. With a name to go with the face, the world went Florence Lawrence mad. And so Florence invented the film star and the celebrity that goes with stardom. Which is kind of ironic, considering Florence’s true passion—inventing!
Florence was never happier than when she was under the hood of a car. She spent years studying up in mechanics and tinkering with as many engines as she could get her hands on.
Seriously, Flo loved cars, once saying, “A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.” But despite Florence feeling cars were inherently wonderful and kind, they had a really nasty habit of killing a ton of people, so Florence decided to change that.
In 1914, she started developing a system that allowed drivers to tell other drivers and pedestrians which way they were going (a sign flipped up with a quick click of a button), then she invited a system that alerted people when the car was about to break.
Florence's inventions were the forerunners to the electric turn signals and brake lights that are in every car worldwide today.
Sadly, Florence never patented her inventions, so she never got the credit she deserved or the shit-ton of money that goes with such world-changing genius.
Now, it only gets worse from here. Florence was badly burned in an on-set accident: it left her with burns on her face and dramatically cut her work. Then she lost most of her money in the final crash of 1929. By the 1930s, Florence was broke, with a string of divorces and business closures behind her, and a medical condition that caused her both pain, and had the lovely side effect of depression.
In 1938, Florence Lawrence took her own life. But that's not the end of Florence Lawrence’s story. Well, it doesn’t have to be.
Florence’s groundbreaking film career and her incredible inventions are just starting to be remembered. So tell people about this amazing lady and when you’re next in a car (or near one!), remember to thank Flo because she invented the brake light, which has totally saved your arse at least once.
That was interesting, where can I find out more? Kelly Brown has a fun biography of Florence called Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star. It’s more focused on her film career than her work in mechancics, but it's a great read on the silent era of film.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.