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Dead medium: the Magic Lantern
From: (Stefan Jones)
Source(s): *The 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue* (Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1968)

page 8

A Proliferation of Magic Lantern Formats

by Stefan Jones

Just how standard were magic lantern formats? Bruce Sterling's early Working Notes on magic lanterns suggested two formats, French and English (see Working Notes 01.0, 01.1, 01.3, 01.6, 01.8, 02.0, 12.3). My recently acquired facsimile edition of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck catalog suggests that the situation was even more confusing.

On page 484, the third in the Magic Lantern section, a series of "Gem Slides" are offered. Their description begins: "The regular size of slides for use in the Standard Magic Lantern is 3 1/4 x 4 inches, one view on each slide."

The Gem slides are noted as being 2 1/2 x 8 inches, and having three views each "2 inches in diameter." The copy continues:

"The quality of the views is beyond question and they will make a picture on a screen two-thirds as large as the regular (..) slides and they are suitable for use in any lantern having a slide stage not less than the width of the slide which is 2 1/2 inches."

Quite a variety of Gem slides sets are listed: Bible stories, folktales, US history, awful tavern stories, etc. The slides within each set were numbered and available separately. The price listed is 45 cents per slide, or 15 cents per picture. This compared favorably with the 42 cents for a single standard sized slide.

Were Gem Slides originally designed for a non- standard magic lantern, defunct by 1897? Were they "unmoveable stock" priced to move once it was discovered that they could be used in a standard sized lantern?

There was a great variety of slide sizes for "juvenile" magic lanterns. Sears sold thirteen projectors ("Home," "Brilliant" and "Gem") for the kids. They took slides of widths 1 3/8", 1 1/2", 1 3/4", 2", 2 3/8" and 2 3/4". Slides for all of these formats were sold by Sears, along with a 3 1/8" format not used by any of the lanterns listed.

Unlike the slides for standard lanterns, which were sold in sets with specific themes and catalog numbers, the juvenile slides appeared to be a rather generic item:

(Page 482)

"These slides come from the manufacturers put up in boxes holding one dozen each. There are from three to five different series of views only. In ordering extra sets of slides, to prevent the possibility of your getting the same subjects you received before, you should state what subjects you have. We cannot fill orders for special subjects. All slides for juvenile lanterns are highly colored and are made up in combinations of very funny pictures, such as the Mother Goose Melodies, Nursery Tales, American and foreign scenery, etc."

The price of these generic slides ran from 35 cents per dozen (for the 1 1/8" format) to $1.75 a dozen for 3 1/8" slides.

Some of the fancier types of slide == those with moving parts, or that made kaleidoscopic effects == were available in some but not all of these sizes. Unlike the fancy slides in the larger format, these were not well described.

A special section (Page 483) describes the "Brilliant" Magic Lantern Slides:

"The cheapest outfit of slides for amateur's lanterns on the market. These are transparencies printed on mica, giving a class of pictures never before offered in anything but high priced slides; they are two inches wide and are substantially bound with metal." The copy notes that they can be used in any lantern two inches in diameter or larger, "but when used with larger lanterns they must be used with a carrier" of pasteboard or light wood. Five lettered sets, with themes such as "Bible Views" and "Noted Places around the World," sell for 50 cents. Each set contains 36 slides... the lowest price for slides of any sort.

Is this another dead format, usable in other projectors with a bit of wiggling and duct tape, or are "Brilliant" slides the equivalent of the five-buck-a-disk shareware collections sold at computer shows?

What are we to make of this proliferation of formats?

I suggest that there were two magic lantern markets. "Professional" lanterns catered to professional showmen, people who made a living presenting entertaining, educational and edifying magic lantern shows. The slides were relatively pricy, standardized, and designed to gracefully fit into a presentation. Some sets (described on Page 484) even came with lecture notes.

Then there was the healthy but low-margin "home" Magic Lantern industry. It catered to children and parents, both as a money-making tool (some of the juvenile lanterns included tickets and handbills) and as an educational device.

Like this century's kiddie media, juvenile magic lanterns were probably seen as somewhat ephemeral items, often sold on price. Small slides meant cheaper slides and a smaller, cheaper projector; and competition for the low end would tend to make them smaller and cheaper still. (The cheapest model sold by Sears was a mere 75 cents!) These commodity units were supported by generic kiddie software so cheap and trivial that the great mail order giant could not be bothered selling them under separate numbers, much less describing them.

Given the vagaries of markets; the faddish nature of children's toys; the abuse children deal their toys; and the irresistible urge mothers get to clear the "junk" out of the house once their offspring leave the nest, I think it likely that the juvenile magic lanterns are even deader than the adult variety.

I think a parallel could be drawn between juvenile magic lanterns, and the many home and specialized childrens' computers of the late seventies and early to mid eighties. The latter are far "deader" than the business machines of the same era. Software for the earliest IBM PCs still runs on the latest Pentium Pro computer. Emulators exist for the most popular home machines (e.g., the Commodore 64); however, history has truly passed by the vast majority of the home machines.

Stefan Jones (