Magic lanterns, in their most basic form, were invented in the 1600s and are considered a precursor to the modern slide projector and even the motion picture. These lanterns were a mainstay in Masonic lodges throughout the world in the 1800s and early 1900s as they were a useful tool in teaching members about Freemasonry and initiatory rites. The lantern used an artificial light source, which evolved from candles and kerosene lamps to limelight and electricity, and a combination of lenses to enlarge small transparent images or miniature models and project them onto a wall or screen. Lanterns could vary from a simple wooden box with brass parts to ornately designed boxes with multiple lenses. In America, magic lanterns were often referred to as stereopticons so as not to be confused with entertainment that may be provided with more basic toy lanterns. “Stereopticons” were usually biunial or double lens lanterns. The terms “Sciopticon” and “Optical Lantern” were sometimes used in a similar manner.
Several scientists and mathematicians developed projection devices in the 1600s including Thomas Walgenstein (1622-1701) and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695). Although Huygens is attributed with inventing the magic lantern, it was Walgenstein, a Dutch mathematician, who coined the term "Magic Lantern" and began conducting lantern demonstrations throughout Europe. In the late 1700s Etienne-Gaspard Robertson(1763-1837), a Belgian physicist and stage magician started to “conjure” ghosts for audiences. These shows lay the foundation for the popular late 18th century phantasmagoria lantern shows that featured skeletons, devils, and ghosts. Aside from these entertainment spectacles, the lanterns were used also for science, education and religious instruction by wealthy academics and Jesuit priests. As the lantern became more popular and readily available, traveling lanternists could be found hosting public performances in taverns and public meeting houses.
The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library owns a collection of magic lanterns and glass lantern slides, many of which were donated by Masonic and fraternal groups like the Knights Templar, Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows. The slides vary from those specific to Freemasonry to those depicting events in world history, literary and biblical stories, folktales, and photographs. Catalogs published in the late 1800s by The M.C. Lilley Company, one of many fraternal regalia manufacturers, included product advertisements for magic lanterns and slides for lodges. According to the 1896 M.C. Lilley catalog no. 195, a Lodge or Valley could purchase a lantern for anywhere from thirty to seventy dollars and lantern slides for two dollars each.
Stop by the museum to see a magic lantern on exhibit (Spring 2015). The lantern on display was donated by the family of Knights of Malta former Supreme Commander Gerard Dallas Jencks. Also check out our website and online catalog in the coming months as we scan and share more images of our extensive magic lantern slide collection.
Update: Please visit the online exhibition, "Illuminating Brotherhood: Magic Lanterns and Slides from the Collection" for more information and photographs about magic lantern history.
Borton, Deborah and Terry Borton, Before the Movies: American Magic-Lantern Entertainment and the Nation’s First Great Screen Artist, Joseph Boggs Beale (New Barnet, Herts, United Kingdom: John Libbey publishing, 2015)
Freeman, Carla Conrad. "Visual Media in Education: An Informal History." Visual Resources. Volume 6 (1990): 327-340.
Masonic Lodge Supplies, Catalogue 1893. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library. Found in Collection, A2002/96/1, Box 4, Masonic Lodge Supplies.