The Magic of the Magic Lantern

First, what is not a magic lantern? It is not the boat-shaped lamp using oil and frequently and erroneously referred to as a magic lantern. Such incorrect references are usually simply a mistake in terminology.

Such items are really lamps, and not lanterns, and those lamps are often thought of as something you rub, and “Jeannie” or a genie pops out to do your bidding.

It might be wonderful, indeed, if some “Jeannie” or genie would pop out of a magic lantern, and certainly this collector has rubbed all his collection of magic lanterns with nothing but a projected image coming out anywhere but from the lens. In fact, a magic lantern is, in the simplest terms, the earliest form of slide projector. It must have a light source inside some sort of container, a place to insert a slide, and a lens out front to project the image from the slide. So, hopefully, we are now through the definitions and have dispelled the incorrect descriptions and images.

The magic lantern, or linterna magica, lantern magique, tooverlantern, or zauberlanterne in any language is an early slide projector which used an oil burner (lamp), sometimes (rarely) a candle, and later increasingly sophisticated light sources, as gas light, limelight, and light from electrical sources, such as the electric arc light, and then the electric light bulb.

The earliest published mention of the magic lantern was contained in a scholarly work by a German Jesuit priest in Rome, Athanasius Kircher, who described it in the 1640s volume entitled Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae or The Art of Light and Shadow. The first edition did not contain an image of what Kircher described. But a later edition did have an image, which continues to be the subject of extensive discussion. The woodcut image shows the slide in right side up, and the projected image likewise, which even to this day with all of our modern technology does not work. In addition the projecting lens is shown behind the slide, and that again seems an unlikely workable arrangement.

Kircher, as well as Walgenstein from the North Countries, Huygens of Holland, and others are variously credited with the invention of the magic lantern, and this is not so unusual since many discoveries in history are variously credited, sometimes along nationalistic lines. Nonetheless, it is well established that the magic lantern or slide projector existed for some time prior to the 1640s, with some evidence of a much earlier date for its first appearance in the world of technology.

Most of our early information about magic lanterns comes from various writings in the 1700s, when itinerant showmen traveled about Europe with such devices and some slides, all of which were hand-made. Images were projected onto light colored walls or light colored cloth hangings, and stories were told about what the images depicted. Fairy tales, folk tales, historical images, all hand- painted on glass, were the usual fare. Sometimes a hurdy gurdy or other musical instrument was played in accompaniment. Naturally, such performances were quite magical to people who, for the most part at that time, did not have sufficient education to really understand how pictures could magically come out of what had been just a lantern, simply giving out light to see by.

Some lanternists would also rent a hall, auditorium or space to have shows for an entrance fee. These seem to have been popular entertainments and/or lectures, and were so reported in the press of the day.

The earliest published notice in America, so far as is known, is one that appeared in the Boston Evening Post, December 3, 1743. It read: “To be shewn by John Dabney, mathematical instrument maker in Milk Street, Boston, on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from five to eight o’clock for the entertainment of the curious, the magic lanthorn, an optick machine, which exhibits a great number of wonderful and surprising figures, prodigious large and vivid, at half crown each, old tenor.” This seems to be all we know about the show, but it sounded fascinating, and certainly so to the folks of that time.

From that time here in the colonies, and later throughout the world, such devices and their images became more and more popular as a mass visual delight. In particular it developed impetus when more and more people realized the opportunities for profit and for education.

Accordingly, by the early 1800s and throughout the rest of that century, especially due to the advent of more manufacturing facilities and then photography in the late 1830s, magic lantern production swelled to a very large industry in Europe and in America. Even in the closed country of Japan, it is said that the Dutch brought the magic lantern, furo, to Japan in the 1600s. Production there was not, of course, as large as America’s or Europe’s but developed roughly parallel to the other nations.

The British produced many beautifully crafted and optically sophisticated magic lanterns of mahogany and brass and a few toy magic lanterns. Germany is best known for producing a wonderful variety of children’s toy magic lanterns. Most seem to have been manufactured in Nuremburg, by one of several makers. The most commonly known of these are; Ernst Planck (E.P.), Johannes Falk (J.F.), Max Dannhorn (M.D.), Jean Schoenner (J.S.), Georg Carette (G.C. Co. N) and Gebruder Bing (GBN). If marked at all, the initials are what are generally found on the toy lanterns.

Some of the children’s toy magic lanterns were really quite ornate or fanciful, even figural. Some had the shape of a small factory building, a pagoda, a race car, a bust of a Chinaman, or even the Eiffel Tower, though the latter two at least have been attributed to another maker, Aubert. These unusual forms, and those with porcelain features and/or highly decorated ones, are eagerly sought after by collectors. Most such toys were lighted by tiny oil lamps inside them.

The larger, more complex magic lanterns produced largely in the mid to late 1800s were used mostly by professional showmen, universities, churches, scientific societies and lecturers giving travelogues with photographic glass slides. There were many British makers of such devices, such as Hughes, Riley Brothers, J.H. Steward, the Darkers, Watson, and, of course, the very large and long-lived Ross. These are the most well-known producers of wonderfully attractive, well-made and functional lantern slide projectors, as they had by that time become known. Though many were of the wood and brass variety, there were also cheaper, light-weight models made of what was commonly known as Russian iron, or blued steel, and sometimes finished by Japanning (painting), mostly in basic black. Some smaller versions were made for children as well.

Some of the magic lanterns were equipped with more than one lens out front, two and sometimes three. Some people have considered more than one lens to indicate that the machine was for stereo or 3D projection. This is not the case. Two or three lenses arranged either vertically, or horizontally in some cases, simply allowed the projectionist to “dissolve” from one image to another without going to total darkness or a flash of light between slides. It also allowed for “special effects,” such as changing a view from day to night or summer to winter or to add an angel to a scene of someone dying, or a star or moon to rise in the night sky.

Some beautiful toy magic lanterns were produced in France by the makers Carree and Lapiere. Companies such as Molteni and Mazo made a wide variety of mostly metal construction, with some well designed for scientific projection, such as for microscope slides. There are few surviving examples from other European countries, though some are known to be from Switzerland.

For the most part, magic lanterns in America were metal, occassionally with some wooden parts such as lens boards. There were several well-known makers in America as well, such as A.T. Thompson of Boston, J.W. Queen, Marcy and McAllister of Philadelphia and New York. McIntosh in Chicago made several interestingly designed lantern slide projectors. However, there were many other makers coast to coast, and in somewhat later years, Bausch and Lomb, Spencer Optical, and even Eastman Kodak after the turn of the 20th century turned out some functional basic black models. Oddly, Charles Beseler Co., in business from the 1800s, produced lantern slide projectors into the 1980s.

Thus magic lanterns/lanternslide projectors were widely used throughout the world, for many of the purposes already mentioned, but additionally as teaching devices, scientific demonstration devices and even in the activities of what were then known as secret societies or lodges. Churches used them to project the words of hymns for the congregation, and during the Franco Prussian War in the 1870s, Microdot messages were flown into Paris via pigeons, or balloons, and the tiny images were projected by a scientific style magic lantern using a projecting microscope front.

Many many illustrations used with magic lanterns appeared in books and periodicals of all sorts in America and in Europe.

Collecting magic lanterns has become quite a passion, and more than a hobby to some. Collectors vary from those with a passing interest only, to folks who collect only some types; while some collectors garner all related materials, both the projectors themselves, and also accessories, illustrations, prints, slides, catalogs and figurines of porcelain and bronze depicting magic lanterns, or magic lanternists.

Of course, there are the projectors to collect, and there is a very wide variety over many time periods to collect. The older the time period, the harder. This is particularly true in Europe, since several wars have decimated the stock to collect. Indeed, good examples are becoming more difficult to find every year. This is especially true of the most rare, which are usually the German or French figural or highly embossed or decorated metal types, such as one that has the shape of the Eiffel Tower, a bust of a Chinaman, a small race car, or those made of porcelain. Many collectors specialize in children’s toy magic lanterns. Certainly they are pretty things and small, so the collector does not have to add onto his or her home or build a museum to hold a collection.

The glass slides are also very important collectibles in the magic lantern related collectibles.

First there are the children’s toy magic lantern slides.

The most commonly found are those made in Germany, and frequently are rectangular strips of glass of many sizes, with blue, green, red, orange, pink or yellow paper edging glued on them so as not to cut children’s busy hands. Most slides of this type are not hand-painted as is frequently thought, but rather are transfers or decals stuck onto the glass strips. This is not to say that there were not, and are not today, surviving children’s glass slides that are hand- painted. There are just fewer of them. Most such children’s slides of the strip type seem to come from Germany and France. One can examine a slide and know by the look of the image what kind it is. In the case of the transfers, the image is often scratched or crazed, though it is certainly possible to scratch a painted slide as well.

This type of transfer slide was produced in the many thousands over a period from the mid-1800s to the 1920s or so, and shipped all over the world. Hundreds, if not thousands, exist all over the United States today and were no doubt imports. Unless they are in mint or perfect condition and in a set, they are somewhat less collectible than some to be later described. However, the strip transfer slides are often quite charming and fanciful.

Then come the larger rectangular glass slides. If they are 3.25 by 4 inches, they are generally thought of as American size. If they are 3.25 inches square, then they are known as the British size. However, both sizes seem to have been produced in countries other than the United States and England. Most of these two sizes of slides consist of two sheets of glass, one of which has the image on one side of it and the other which covers the image, and bound all around by a black paper tape. Some tape colors varied, sometimes as a result of a repair.

Such slides were produced by black and white photography, and remain that way on many. If they are colored, it was necessary to hand color them, since for all practical purposes, color photography was not widely available during the peak production of this type slide. There were some French and other attempts to make colored photographic lantern slides with starch grains, but they did not survive in large numbers, and had a tendency to be somewhat fragile.

Additionally, many popular slides produced in Britain were also transfer slides of children’s fairy or folk tales, such as Alice in Wonderland, John Gilpin’s Ride, Cinderella and so on. They were sold in boxed sets of eight to 12 or more, and covered more subjects than mentioned before. Such sets also came with what is referred to as a reading, or script describing the story slide by slide. Many of the readings are today lost.

There are many French slides which were of the transfer type, and some hand-painted ones as well. They seem to mostly have a green paper edging, and usually illustrate a fairy tale, such as Cinderella, or a folk tale. They frequently have some wording telling the story on one end of the slide.

The American sized slides were produced in the hundreds of thousands, and covered just about every imaginable subject, Yes, some were even X-rated! Some American slides were called lightweight with only one piece of glass with a cover glass and framed in a light cardboard. They are, of course, more fragile and prone to scratching or other damage.

The most prolific producers of slides in America included the Keystone Company, Underwood and Underwood, McIntosh, McAllister, the Detroit Publishing Company, and the list goes on. Many of the slides produced by these companies were of the educational or travel type and came mostly in black and white. The very prolific Keystone Company produced the slides with accompanying oak cabinets in sets of 600 and 1,200 for schools and libraries. Some sets came also with additional cabinature for holding sets of stereoview cards, a hand-held viewer, and a lantern slide projector as well. Many slides were simply one half of a stereo pair. The Detroit Publishing Company turned out many such items, including some by the famous photographer W.H. Jackson.

Some lecturers like Jackson were also photographers, and among them were the well known John Stoddard and Burton Holmes, both famous for lantern slide illustrated travelogue lectures.

Many businesses and show people used the magic lantern for advertising. Among those are such diverse types as the Santa Fe Railroad, the Holland America Line, P.T. Barnum and, of course, the early motion picture producers who advertised soon to be shown movies and local advertisements. This latter type of “coming attractions” slides has recently become a very hot collecting area; some bring hundreds of dollars.

Many religious slides were produced, and two particular sets were very popular but are not found too easily today. One set is of the popular story “In His Steps,” and the other “The Photo History of Creation.”

But some of the most desirable slides for the serious magic lantern, or lantern slide, collector are those in wooden frames. These come in all sorts of sizes and configurations and are most often not marked by the maker. The most common of this type measures approximately 4” by 7”, and about 3/8” thick.

There is generally one 3 to 3.25” circular glass image centered in the dimensions given. These slides are, if not handpainted entirely, at least hand tinted on a black and white positive photograph. Most came in sets illustrating some story of patriotic, religious or lodge content. Some were also scientific in nature. Many were sold in sets of varying numbers to the set. This appears true according to extant sets and numbers on them, plus references in catalogs of the time.

Next in the hierarchy of importance to collectors of the genre are those wood mounted glass slides that have various fixed and moving pieces of glass, with some painting on each. These vary widely in type and subject, many of a humorous nature or providing some primitive motion. The simplest are what are called slip slides, or sliders. They have one fixed painted image, and one or two slip glasses that move in and out of the horizontal axis of the frame. There is also a slip slide that not only has one fixed and/or one slipping piece, but also has another piece of glass that has a lever that moves that piece up and down, all of which give different motions to the figures painted on them.

Additionally, there are some slides known as rackwork or rotary wood mounted slides. These usually have one fixed and one moving circular piece of glass with an image painted on each, with tiny brass gear teeth around the edges rotated by a pinion gear from a crank on the end of the slide.

Again there are more complex slides, with the crank/rotary and a lever or slipping piece as well. Some wooden slides are up to three feet long and have panoramic views which are passed through the slide opening in the magic lantern, with a story to go along with the images. Some of these have one fixed image and one long piece of glass that slides across, showing for example a fixed picture of the pyramids, with the sliding piece having a caravan painted on it. The caravan appears to pass in front of the pyramids as the moveable glass is drawn across the fixed image. These are very desirable for the serious collector.

There are also wood mounted slides showing scientific illustrations, some fixed, and some in sets with moving parts to show the motions of the solar system and various other celestial phenomena. One problem involving these slides is that many are a proprietary size, and not all fit all magic lanterns. This is particularly true of the children’s slides. Of course, condition of the slides is critical to collectability and value. Peeling paint, split wood, cracked or broken glass, missing parts, corrosion, bent or damaged metal parts and malfunctioning units all detract. Certainly the same criteria apply to the magic lanterns themselves.

Very desirable are prints showing the magic lantern in use, catalogs of magic lantern makers or purveyors, and instruction manuals. Illustrations and books dealing with the magic lantern are also sought after by the serious collector.

Thus, there is a wide variety of items to be collected in the wonderful magic lantern field. The magic lantern is certainly the father of motion pictures, and the grandfather of television.

Further information can be obtained by accessing, and much can be learned by joining the magic lantern society of the United States and Canada at

The author is the past president of the Magic Lantern Society and is the owner of the Magic Lantern Castle Museum, which is a member of both the American and Texas Associations of Museums.

Written By: Jack Judson
Source: New England Antiques Journal