The Magic Lantern Society of the US and Canada is a group that collects, preserves and shares information on the many devices that were used to entertain and educate audiences before the beginning of cinema.
Often called a “stereopticon show,” Magic lantern shows were the combination of projected images, live narration, and live music that preceded the movies. They were incredibly popular 100 years ago.
By the 19th century, the magic lantern was used in theaters, churches, fraternal lodges, and at home by adults and children. In 1895 there were between 30,000 and 60,000 lantern showmen in the United States, giving between 75,000 and 150,000 performances a year. That means there would have been several shows a week.
What is a Magic Lantern?
Introduced in the 1600's, the magic lantern was the earliest form of slide projector and has a long and fascinating history. The first magic lanterns were illuminated by candles, but as technology evolved they were lit by kerosene, limelight, carbon arc, and electric light.
What was entertaining about the slides?
The heyday of the magic lantern in the US and elsewhere was mid-to-late 19th century. For audiences that had never seen a movie, watched tv, or experienced the internet, projected slides were a wonder. Slides were often dramatic, detailed, colorful and included movement.
What type of images did they project?
The first lantern slides were hand-painted on glass and projected on walls and cloth screens. Some were even rear projected, hiding the projectionist from the audience. By the mid-19th century, black and white lantern slides were produced photographically. Popular images included travel scenes,dramatic story slides, moral tales, song slides, religious and patriotic themes, and comic pictures. Until movies came along around the turn-of-the-century, magic lanterns were the only existing projection device.
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