Mystery at the Museum -Magic Lanterns

Several days ago I decided to set up a camera display in the (new) Gen’l Store. The museum has had a number of them in storage for several years, and it was time to get them out. But when I got to looking at them they didn’t seem right. So research began, and I was soon to discover that the “cameras” were actually Magic Lanterns. And thus began a whole new field of learning I had known nothing about. –That’s one of the things I like so much about the museum. There’s always new things to learn, ~about things that are old.

Very few people these days know what Magic Lanterns are. But not so long ago, before computers and cell phones, before movies or TV, before the Silent Pictures, before there were even very many photographs, …there were Magic Lanterns. Just a bit over a hundred years ago, Magic Lanterns were the most common and well liked form of entertainment in the U.S. By some estimates there were 50,000+ traveling road shows of the projected pictures. And then they suddenly disappeared from use, and even disappeared from memory.

The magic lantern was an early type of image projector, developed in the 17th century. It used a concave mirror behind a light source to direct as much of the light as possible through a small rectangular sheet of glass – the magic lantern slide – on which was the painted or photographic image to be projected – and onward into a lens at the front. The lens was adjusted to focus the projection on a screen or wall.

Initially, candles or oil lamps were used, producing very dim projections. Improvements in lighting took the form of the Argand lamp from the 1790’s, limelight in the 1820’s, electric arc light in the 1860’s and finally the incandescent electric lamp.

The art of projection reached a high-point in the 1870-1880 period, with the magic lantern playing a very important part in Victorian society. Temperance and religious lectures were given, they were used in education, they helped in the demonstration of scientific principles, they helped relay the latest news of world events, and were used to create ‘phantasmagoria’ shows. By this time, images were being transferred to slides by photographic means, and then colored by hand.

One of the most interesting early uses of the lanterns was during church or religious gatherings. At the front of the sanctuary, or meeting room, a screen would be set up. A Magic Lantern was placed behind the screen so it could not be seen by the congregation. In the darkened church, at the point of the sermon most warning of the dangers of the devil, the lantern would be turned on showing a picture of a monster or some other evil being. The projectionist would then very quickly move the lantern away from the screen, causing the projected image to appear to grow larger. This would cause an effect of the monster charging at the crowd. And many folks were terrified. With reportedly much shouting, crying and even some repenting. An even scarier effect could be achieved by projecting the image on a cloud of smoke or incense, which would cause the devil to appear to move and waver.

Magic Lanterns brought wonderful lessons and entertainment to the public. They showed folks the many wonders of the world. They brought people together, unlike the many devices of today. They were fun and they are certainly missed by those few remaining who remember them.

-You can see the museum’s Magic Lanterns on display at the Gen’l Store. And if you ask, maybe we’ll turn one on to show you how they work.


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