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Walker Library / Special Collections / Spotlight Collection

Magic Lanterns

A magic lantern show, late 1800s

The magic lantern was a device for projecting an image painted, printed, or otherwise produced on a plate of glass—in effect, an early version of the slide projector. Magic lanterns were simple contrivances—a box, typically wood or tin; a lens; and a light source. Light was aimed at the back of the slide and the illuminated image was then projected through the lens to appear on a white screen or backdrop. The plates’ imagery could be entertaining or edifying. Exotic locations, natural wonders, Bible stories, and nursery rhymes were prevalent subject matter. 

image of magic lantern 1800s
Magic lantern projector, late 1800s

Although the first magic lanterns probably date to the early seventeenth century, they became popular in the nineteenth century, and increasingly so after the mid-century. They were something of  novelty and, as such, correspond to other “novel” aspects of America’s visual culture in the late 1800s and the first several decades of the 1900s. For example, although photography had long been familiar to the public, early cameras were heavy and the developing process awkward. But photography became an increasingly accessible and widespread pastime after 1900, when the Eastman Kodak Company began selling the small, light-weight Brownie camera for $1.00. “Folding cameras”--cameras with bellows that, when fully extended, brought lens and film into proper focus--appeared in the 1890s. And in 1913 the Tourist Multiple appeared, the first American-made cameras to use 35mm film.

Meanwhile, the public was captivated by moving pictures. Small, cramped theaters—nickelodeons, as they were called—charged a nickel and presented audiences with a series of short, silent films. As filmmakers became more ambitious and produced full-length movies (and eventually “talkies”), the nickelodeon venues gave way to spacious, lavishly decorated movie theaters.

The manufacture of lantern slides was initially centered in Europe, with Germany leading the industry after mid-century, but many American slide companies were established in the later nineteenth century. The earliest slides were painted and colored by hand. In the 1850s, the advent of the wet collodion photographic process, which transferred an image to a glass plate, led to the mass production of slides, with the image-bearing plate sandwiched between two other glass plates. All of our magic lantern slides are of this “sandwich” construction. 

Most of our slides were made by the Riley Optical Instrument Company, a British slide and projector manufacturer that opened a New York City office in 1895, but the “Liquor ‘Trade’” slide shown here was made by Victor Animatographic Company of Davenport, Iowa, founded by Alexander Victor in 1910.  Victor is thought to be the inventor of the first motorized washing machine. His passion, however, was photography. Victor Animatographic produced magic lanterns and slides, stereoscopes and stereoscope cards, and movie cameras, film editors, and projectors. Although the claim is disputed, he is often said to be the inventor of the 16 mm movie camera.

temperance slide
Temperance slide, Riley Optical Instrument Company, ca. 1895-1915
Temperance slide, Victor Animatographic Company, ca. 1910

Numerous sets of magic lantern slides focus on the Temperance movement. Accordingly, we’ve acquired slides for the Distilling, Fermenting, and Brewing Collection, which currently consists of approximately 800 books and other items that reflect the “evils” of drink. Although our set of the Riley Optical slides comprises a dozen slides and is evidently incomplete, the surviving slides reflect a theme common in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Temperance movement:  a man degraded by habitual alcohol consumption, abusive towards his wife, and neglectful of his children.