About Lantern Slides

photoThe lantern slide has its origins in 17th century optical viewing devices which came to be known as “magic lanterns.” The earliest slides for magic lanterns consisted of hand-painted images on glass, projected by itinerant showmen to amuse their audiences. In 1849, about ten years after the invention of photography, lantern slides began to be produced photographically. Rapid improvements in photographic reproduction methods and more effective projection illuminants sparked the increased popularization of magic lantern slides.

In the United States, magic lantern shows were especially popular in formal education settings. From the 1850s, following the lead of the Philadelphia-based Langenheim Brothers, a growing number of slide manufacturers retained stock collections of negatives from which lantern slides could be produced, assembled into thematic boxed sets, and sold to consumers, including universities, companies, clubs and other social organizations.

The vast majority of these commercial lantern slides were black-and-white positive images, created with the wet collodion or a dry gelatine process. Slide lantern photographers made either “contact” or “reduction” prints. Contact prints were made by placing a negative over a piece of light-sensitive lantern glass and then developing the image by exposure under controlled light. For a reduction print, the photographer affixed the negative to a window with a clear view, and photographed the illuminated negative directly onto the light-senstive lantern glass with a camera. After the completion of the photographic process, slide makers often affixed a paper border to the lantern glass, covered it with a clear piece of protective glass, and then bound the glass “sandwich” together with tape. The paper borders often bore printed identification of the commercial studio. Less frequently, manufacturers employed professional colorists to apply pigment washes to the lantern glass image prior to labeling and binding.

Hand coloring required additional skilled labor, space and tools, and delayed the mass production of the slides. Its relationship to painting on china and glass meant that women often performed the skilled labor. Transparent oil paints, aniline dyes or watercolors were most frequently used in the process, the slides sometimes baked in an oven to set the paint layers prior to subsequent pigment applications. While the earliest hand-colored slides required the painter’s experimentation with different pigments and dyes, by the early 20th century, paint manufacturers produced sets of colors specifically designed for slide lantern use.

Once the photographic image was ready for assembly, the binders often applied a gummed opaque paper border (called a mask) to the glass negative and then topped it with a clear glass cover. They then placed the two pieces of glass into a binding clamp and bound them together with gummed paper tape. Slides could then be individually sold or grouped into thematic sets, placed in grooved boxes, and distributed. Originally housed in the wooden boxes associated with glass negatives, the majority of the slides bearing the labels of individual manufacturers and studios, the Photographic Lantern Slide Collection is representative of such commercial sales.

Slide lantern manufacturers also sold instruction manuals and mass-produced kits intended for amateur photographers, teachers, organizations, and educational institutions. Such kits included light-sensitive lantern glass, clear cover glass, gummed paper masks, binding tape, and grooved wooden boxes for safe storage. Museums, schools and universities frequently created their own lantern slides for educational use. Photographic clubs emerged in American cities, offering lantern slide lectures and organizing slide exchanges. The slides in this collection that lack manufacturer, retailer or studio labels may be the products of such non-commercial endeavors.

Lantern slides created a new way to view both commercial and amateur photography. While the earliest photographic methods required an intimate viewership, the projection capabilities of the magic lantern allowed for a sizable audience. In the United States, the greatest impact of lantern slides was as a didactic tool and a form of entertainment. Photographic lantern slides reached the peak of their popularity during the first third of the 20th century, and dramatically impacted the development of animation technologies as well as visual-based education methods in fields such as anthropology, art history, and geography. As new photographic films emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, magic lantern shows became a rarity and ultimately obsolete.