The SDSU Library and Information Access will feature its large collection of magic lanterns and slides Jan. 18 - June 29.
A chromolithographic narrative slide from the collection illustrating "Gulliver's Travels."
Before television and motion pictures — before even filmstrips and slide projectors — magic lanterns entertained and educated people by projecting colorful and fantastic images on walls and screens.
From the late 18th century through the early 20th century, showmen and conjurers traveled from town to town, their lanterns strapped to their back, performing in taverns, barns, homes, auditoriums and churches.
Outside of antique stores and museums, magic lanterns are now scarce, but the San Diego State University Library and Information Access has a sizeable collection of these fascinating devices, as well as more than 4,000 glass slides.
Beginning on Jan. 18, many of these lanterns and slides will be on display in an exhibit titled “Sources of Wonder: The Homer and Betty Peabody Magic Lantern Collection,” which will run until June 29, in the library’s Donor Hall. The lanterns and slides on display were donated by Betty and Homer Peabody, for whom the collection is named.
The exhibit will feature around 30 professional, toy and domestic lanterns dating from the late 19th to early 20th centuries and a large sampling of the different types and themes of slides, including:
- Caricature and comic slides
- Narrative slides
- Medical slides
- Elementary education slides
- Travel slides
- Temperance slides
- Advertisement slides
It will also include a case displaying the different types of slides, including mechanical slides, as well as chromolithographic, photographic and hand-painted slides.
Magic lantern inspiration
Inspired by the camera obscura, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens created the first magic lantern in 1658. Early illuminants included the sun, candles and oil lamps. Later, lanternists used limelight and carbon-arc illuminants.
Throughout the 1660s, Jesuits and wealthy academics used the lanterns for religious instruction and education. However, it wasn’t long before the instrument left the domain of the intellectual community and became the tool of showmen and conjurers. The first known magic lantern “show” was given in 1665 by Danish mathematician Thomas Walgensten, who used the device to conjure ghosts for wealthy and royal audiences.
Beginning in the late 18th century, magic lanterns moved from the private to the public sphere. Phantasmagoria — a throwback to the medieval use of light and shadow to trick and deceive audiences — became a popular format for magic lantern shows during this time. The 19th century saw magic lanterns become a staple of Victorian life, with large audiences attending performances in exhibition halls such as London’s Royal Polytechnic.
Gradually, the lantern’s time in the limelight waned. By the middle of the 20th century, the modern slide projector had fully superseded the magic lantern’s function as a visual aid, and cinema and television seized the lantern’s role in entertainment. Today, the magic lantern lives on through magic lantern societies, such as the Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain and the Magic Lantern Society of the United States and Canada, and exhibits such as “Sources of Wonder” at the SDSU Library.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the American Magic Lantern Theater will hold magic lantern performances at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Feb. 14. The shows will be held in Love Library, Room 108 and admission is free. The American Magic Lantern Theater recreates Victorian magic lantern shows using authentic equipment to project color images, as well as live drama, music and comedy.
For more information about the collection, please contact Robert Ray, head of Special Collections and University Archives, at 619-594-4303 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the online magic lantern exhibit.