The main title was originally produced as a lantern slide for vaudeville theaters and the nickelodeon that showed the first films. Such slides named the film (framing audience response), filled in gaps in the narrative and dialogue, and addressed the audience directly about film-watching etiquette. As Charles Musser (1990) points out, the main title card frequently identified a pro-filmic event familiar to audiences, thus instantly aligning their orientation to the screen narrative. Biograph films from 1896 on relied on lantern slides to effect continuities between shots, sometimes bridging ellipses and pointing to the unfolding character of the story. In July 1903, Edison's Uncle Tom's Cabin introduced the filmed title card (as opposed to a title on a slide provided by the exhibitor), which appeared between and labeled each scene. Around 1905, Musser notes, Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941) used animated, filmic intertitles, with swirling or moving letters that formed words against a black ground. Some "head titles" for early films were supplied by the film exchanges (early distribution facilities), not by the producers.
Early titles were made on a copy stand, and, in a 1911 encyclopedia, a tabletop method is given with illustrations. During World War I, Barry Salt (1983) notes, the practice of carrying the narrative action through dialogue titles became established in American cinema. D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) continued it into the 1920s. Some lines of dialogue were not carded, prompting the audience to participate in forming an understanding of what the characters were saying. Title cards containing illustrations or designs began in 1916.
In the 1930s and 1940s, cinema frequently was marketed on the basis of its attachment to popular and high-brow literature; a main title sequence for such films could establish the prestige-bearing literary connection in more ways than by simply listing the book from which the movie had come. For example, in The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949), the names of Gary Cooper (1901–1961) and Patricia Neal (b. 1926) appear on what appears to be a title card with a sketch of skyscrapers in the background; one of the buildings suddenly rotates to reveal itself as the spine of a gigantic book, The Fountainhead , the "pages" of which systematically open to reveal the principal credits—prominently featured among which is a card of attribution to Ayn Rand (1905–1982), the author. The central character in Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1946) is an author, and the main title is an artist's rendering of his book cover. By contrast, the main credits for There's No Business like Show Business (Walter Lang, 1954), aim to reflect vaudeville as a principal source of twentieth-century show business: here, flamboyant gold lettering is superimposed on plush red velvet theater curtains.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, main titles often showed filmic background action or scenery under the title cards. One example among thousands is Out of the Past (1947), in which the main credits are backed by stationary and panning background shots of bucolic countryside. Titles of this sort were produced early on through matte photography, with optically printed split-screen technique debuting in the 1960s. Relatively elaborate main title sequences began in the 1950s to add attraction to motion pictures, largely in response to the rise of television and the Paramount Decree, which curbed the big studios' ability to succeed in exhibiting their own films.
Saul Bass was the principal agent of this first design wave, especially, although not exclusively, for the films of Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) and Otto Preminger (1906–1986). In the 1960s, Stephen Frankfurt's (b. 1931) eerie and elegiac sequence for Mockingbird was the first main title in which loving attention was paid to the details of objects (through macrophotography). Blake Edwards (b. 1922) commissioned Warner Bros. cartoonist Fritz Freleng (1905–1995) to design the cartoon opening sequence for The Pink Panther (1963), a sequence audiences adored because of its goofy animated pink cat and Henry Mancini's (1924–1994) sophisticated and bouncy theme. The split-screen technique is masterfully shown in the title sequence of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), where color still frames appear against, and move around on, a black screen.