Past Treasure of the Month – December 2007

Magic Lanterns
Lantern1898 magic lantern slide projector. Manufactured by Ernst Plank, Nuremberg, Germany.
Gift of Marjorie Runge Kelso, 1995.

During the month of December, the Rosenberg Library displayed an antique magic lantern with thirteen original glass slides. This magic lantern, an early type of slide projector, was made in Nuremberg, Germany in 1898 by the Plank Company. The slides depict various scenes, from daily life in a European village, to fairy tale characters, to biblical tableaus.

Magic lanterns are the ancestors to modern slide projectors. Athanasius Kirchner, a Jesuit priest, is credited with inventing the first magic lantern in 1671. The device consisted of a box containing an oil lamp which illuminated painted glass slides through a lens. The images on the slides were projected onto a screen or a wall and were magnified to appear much larger.

By the 1800s, magic lantern slide shows had become wildly popular forms of entertainment. Projectionists would travel from town to town, hosting shows for eager audiences. Themes of the shows varied widely, but military feats, cartoons, fairy tales, and bible stories were among the most common.

While early slides were hand-painted by skilled artists, the invention of photography allowed for the inexpensive creation and mass production of slides for magic lantern projectors. Photographic slides of famous landmarks, foreign lands, and important people were readily available for viewing. Many of these slides were sold in series, and were used to convey uplifting stories or to teach moral lessons.

After the invention of moving pictures in the late nineteenth century, the market for magic lanterns began to dwindle, and production of the projectors and slides finally ceased in the 1940s. Today, surviving magic lanterns and slides are highly sought after by collectors.