William Selig incorporated the company in November 1900, with capital of $50,000. A month later the firm was sued for patent infringement by Thomas Edison. The charge was essentially true: Selig was one of several early filmmakers who pirated Edison's original invention. Selig claimed to have developed his movie projector, which he called the "polyscope," independently; a few others made the same claim, calling their devices the "cineograph" or "cameragraph" or other terms — though all were close variations of Edison's original machine, the "projecting kinetoscope."
Edison's lawsuits dogged Selig for years, and by 1906 almost drove his firm into bankruptcy. In that year, however, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, his exposure of the corrupt and filthy practices of the meatpacking industry. Selig had made some early promotional films on the Chicago stockyards; as part of their response to Sinclair, leading meatpacker Armour & Co. arranged the re-release of these films, and also supplied financial backing and legal help to Selig. Armour lawyers worked toward a negotiated settlement with Edison: in 1907 the Selig company was one of several firms that joined in the Motion Picture Patents Company, which managed royalty payments to Edison and freed its members to concentrate on their businesses.
The stockyard films Selig had made in 1900 were typical of the company's early output: the firm did not make its first fiction film until 1904. Its early work featured films on firemen, boxing matches, and other documentary subjects; Chicago Police Parade (1901) and A Trip Around the Union Loop (1903) were two of its offerings. Selig also produced one of the first weekly newsreels. Given the boss's background — Selig had once managed a minstrel troupe — a few minstrel films also were included in the company's catalogue.
The company's renewed life after 1906 allowed it to expand into more entertainment vehicles, comedies and Westerns. "Bronco Billy" Anderson started with Selig in 1907, before moving on to a competitor in 1908. Selig's early directors included Francis Boggs and Otis Turner, both of whom worked on Oz materials. The company's early films were all one-reelers; Selig produced its first two-reel film, Damon and Pythias, in 1908. In 1911, Selig's output reached four one-reelers per week.
The Selig Company made history in 1909, when it was the first movie company to build a permanent studio in southern California. The firm also established the Selig Zoo in Los Angeles in 1911, which furnished animals for its jungle pictures and also supplied other studios. Selig acquired the rights to film the World Series in 1913, and produced four-reel highlight packages. The cowboy star Tom Mix was under contract to Selig from 1910 to 1917, and provided a steady supply of healthy profits. After losing Mix, the company ceased making films in 1918 (it proved too small to stand against larger competitors), but continued to operate its zoo.
- Kalton C. Lahue. Motion Picture Pioneer: The Selig Polyscope Company. South Brunswick, NJ, A.S. Barnes, 1973.
- Charles Musser. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. University of California Press, 1994.
- Mark Evan Swartz. Oz Before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage and Screen to 1939. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.