Magic Lanterns on easy terms

I recently came across a study carried out by a researcher at the University of Exeter in the UK where, by searching old newspaper adverts, they found evidence that people in Victorian times could hire magic lanterns and slides for an evenings entertainment.

I fund this idea mildly intriguing, so I thought I would try a quick and dirty search of the NLA’s Trove to see if the same thing was happening in Australia.

First of all I used querypic to have a look at the occurrence of the phrase magic lantern in the newspapers of the time:

magic lantern

which shows that the phrase certainly was in use from the 1850’s to the 1900’s, when it started to tail off, perhaps because of the advent of the movies.

Naively, I though it would be quite easy to see if magic lanterns were being hired out. I thought that if I restricted my search to only advertising between 1850 and 1900 in Trove’s collections of digitised newspapers I would find evidence of people hiring out magic lanterns and slides.

Not a bit of it. All these lectures by worthy Victorian vicars on the lives of the indigenous population, or missionary work in China overwhelmed any adverts for the hire of magic lanterns.

There is of course the questions as to where the aforesaid vicars got their magic lanterns from. Did they buy them?, where they hired out by missionary societies, did they get the slide sets separately from the lanterns?

All questions for another day.

One thing that was clear though, was that by the 1890s, stores were advertising magic lanterns for purchase, as in this example from the Daily Commercial News of 11 May 1899:

which suggests that if people bought them for home use, they must have hired sets of slides separately.

Which of course begs the question of what sorts of slides. While undoubtedly some of the slide set would have been worthy, we know from the example of stereoscopes in the 1850’s, that one of the drivers could well have been to provide a means of viewing pornographic images at home.

While people might have been quite happy to got to an illustrated talk on missionary work in China, it was after all a social occasion that provided an opportunity to meet people, what people did behind closed doors and the sorts of lantern slides they looked at may well have been different …


A little more searching, this time for the phrase magic lantern slides has revealed that, as in this advert from the Express and Telegraph of 24 June 1868 in Adelaide, that slides and magic lanterns were hired out

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.19.59

and that there were retailers of slides, both new

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.19.05

and second hand

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.18.38

what’s also interesting is that some of these must have come with pre written lectures to accompany them …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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