The holidays are here! At this time of year we seek shelter from the cold, staying indoors with loved ones, comfort foods, and, of course, entertainment. In 2020, that last item often comes in the form of glowing images on a screen—but did you know that over a hundred years ago, things weren’t so different as you might imagine?
In the late 1800s, a device known as the magic lantern was used in American households as well as at schools, churches, and other venues. Also called stereopticons, magic lanterns earned their more common moniker by dazzling audiences with glowing projected images. These machines were invented in the late 1600s. The technology developed and the device became easier to use over the next two centuries. Here at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, we have a number of these early slide projectors—many Masonic lodges used magic lanterns to deliver lectures. You may see examples and read more about their fascinating and varied history at our online exhibition Illuminating Brotherhood: Magic Lanterns and Slides from the Collection.
Many types of slides and programs were developed to use with magic lanterns. By the late 1800s their production—largely focused in the northeastern U.S.—was booming, with slides being made for every imaginable purpose, from advertising and entertainment to educational presentations offered in schools, public lecture halls, churches, and fraternal organizations. Some slides featured photographs while others bore hand-colored images. Many told humorous stories with successive images and accompanying text. For example, "The Snow Ball", three slides of which are pictured here, illustrates the amusing hijinks of a group of boys whose snow creation wreaks havoc on a country town. A long-lived Boston stereopticon company named A. D. Handy produced these slides. You may view the rest of the riotous story of the snow ball, as well as more magic lantern slides produced by this company and others, at our Flickr page.
Do you have any magic lantern stories to share, or perhaps slides or projectors in your attic? Let us know in the comments section below! As always, we invite you to visit our other online exhibitions and explore our collections online. Happy holidays!