Digital Collections Spotlight #44: Magic Lanterns

Posted September 26, 2023 in Digital Access

Digital Collections Spotlight #44: Magic Lanterns

While much of our holdings here at the Moravian Church Archives, Bethlehem, are printed materials we also house and maintain a wide range of other materials. These fascinating items from our object collection are an excellent example, a pair of late 19th century magic lanterns. They are part of an early form of projection technology and are notable for both the sort of content they could display and what they can tell about the education and fundraising efforts of the Moravian Church. They also present an excellent opportunity to highlight another collections that has been digitized and made available online as well as highlighting work done by interns in recent years.

The early history of magic lanterns is unclear but it is believed that they were based on knowledge of camera obscura, which were written of as early as the 4th century BC in China, and by the 17th century there are multiple scattered references to such devices being constructed and used in Europe. It’s not clear who was the initial inventor but the noted Dutch scientist Christaan Huygens[1] (1629-1695) is often referenced as he is known to have designed a version very similar to modern magic lanterns. These early versions used slides hand painted on paper or glass and were used for entertainment or education, but it was with the invention of photography in the 1800s that magic lanterns reached the height of their popularity. With this advance in technology it became far simpler to create, reproduce, and distribute images on glass slides and they became a common sight in classrooms as well as being used to accompany traveling lecturers. Magic Lanterns remained in popular use up until the 1950s when they were supplanted by the 35 mm slide projector.

In regards to the magic lanterns in our collection, the brass model [2] to the left in the photograph above is c. 1880 and was manufactured by Jean Schoennerin in Nuremberg, Germany, and came with the wooden storage case seen behind it. The smaller model to the right [3], which is missing its lamp, is c.1890 and was manufactured by Ernst Plank, also in Nuremberg. Both companies were primarily toy manufacturers and this is reflected in the lanterns, which were designed for home use and are accompanied by small glass slides depicting scenes likely to appeal to children such as the example shown below which shows illustrations of animals in period outfits [4]. As with that one, each slide would have several images which could be shown in sequence by moving the slide in its holder at the front of the projector.

Transparency, Magic Lantern | OC.0222.2.7, Moravian Archives Bethlehem

In addition to entertainment, magic lanterns were often also used for education and our holdings include a number of larger slides depicting locations from the history of Moravian Church in Europe and the work of Moravian missionaries throughout the world. Lantern slides such as these were presented at Moravian churches throughout the United States and acted as a tool for both education about the church’s work and fundraising to support said work. In recent years we have been working alongside interns from Moravian University to clean, catalog, and digitize these fascinating materials and look forward to showing some of the results of this project in a future post.

Image: Magic Lanterns from the Collection of the Moravian Church Archives, Bethlehem | OC.0222.1, OC.0223.1, OC.0223.2, Moravian Archives Bethlehem

Further Reading:

“About Magic Lanterns” Magic Lantern Society. Accessed 9/18/2023

Cox, Tori. “An Artful Life: The Colored Lantern Slides of Anna Caulfield McKnight” University of Michigan Library. Accessed 9/18/2023

de Roo, Henc R.A. “de Luikerwaal” Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands). Accessed 9/18/2023.

[1] Huygens was an extremely influential figure in the history of science; a few highlights of his work include advances in optics, the discovery of Titan (the largest of Saturn’s moons) and the invention of the pendulum clock.
[2] OC.0223.1
[3] OC.0222.1
[4] OC.0222.2.7