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Curious Collectibles Offer a Look at Yesteryear

We live in a visual age where photos are so numerous that we don’t even bother to print them off our cell phones and videos are viewed many times a day thanks to news alerts, YouTube and other digital applications.

But movies got their start in the 19th century as photography developed on a much smaller scale. Back then, film stories were told with still images that amazingly to today’s viewer, moved manually.

The “special” effects then still seemed like magic to viewers who may have never even seen a camera, let alone used one. These early movie projectors are today’s treasures known as magic lanterns.

At the height of their popularity, these exciting instruments found their home in well-to-do Victorian parlors and public gatherings. With colorful hand painted glass slides and kerosene-lit viewing mechanisms, the primitive movie projectors are collected by fans of Victoriana, movies, art and antique novelties.

Magic lanterns were used both publicly and privately, for education and entertainment. Horror films for Halloween were popular with early audiences, along with movies for the Christmas season and other holidays.

One quaint tale told by magic lanterns revolved around a giant bed bug attacking a Victorian gentleman asleep in his proper 19th century bedroom, attired in his nightcap and gown. Nothing is missing from the scenes and the humor goes hand-in-hand with the fright.

Another popular magic lantern tale involves a sleeping man, with a huge black beard who snores loudly and inhales a rat that leaps on the bed! This Victorian tale is called “The Ratcatcher.”

The typically three-inch glass slides offer a colorful glimpse of the action and are also collected by fans of early cinema. Collectors enjoy the nostalgic scenes, humor and message illustrated on the glass. These old glass slides can be quite beautiful with detailed hand painted scenes and excellent workmanship.

Many of the best examples are German made. Circular examples (like vintage View-Master slides) exist along with the common American format of 3 by 4-inch rectangular slides.

Historically, magic lanterns can be traced to the 17th century and some experts claim that these old movie viewers may have originated back in the age of the Greeks, when Aristotle studied the science of optics.

Credit for the first working lantern often goes to a Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher, who advanced the use of magic lanterns and may have used them in his research and teaching. Others played a role too and the lantern continued to advance over several centuries.

The first lanterns used oil or kerosene but by 1870 limelight (oxygen and hydrogen on a pellet of lime) offered another option that offered better light but a dangerous way to work. This was followed by the carbon arc lamp in the late 1800s and finally electric light.

By 1900, this magic form of entertainment was clearly evolving into today’s cinema experience.

Phantasmagoria is the name for the first major public trend in these early movies. These light and shadow shows became popular right after the French Revolution in Paris and involved a vision of ghosts, séances and spooky images, perfect for Halloween.

The audio for magic lanterns involved a narrator who could do voices like ventriloquism and perform along with the projected slides. Piano music might be incorporated and even the audience could be involved, as sound effects were needed, with people banging on tambourines, chanting or singing along. It was very creative entertainment!

During the 19th century itinerant showmen with lanterns traveled around the country giving shows in the towns they visited. Most of these shows would relate to Biblical tales, children’s themes or current events.

Many of these publicly used models featured two lenses or even three, allowing various images to intersect and create movement. These largest models with multiple lenses are the most valuable and are usually mahogany and brass.

These wonderful relics of early film can now be found in museums or private collections that focus on the early days of cinema.


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