Magic Lanterns & Peep Shows

Two hands form the shadow of a rabbit.
Hand shadow of a rabbit. Source: Public Domain

The history of optical projections goes all the way back to playing with shadows. Obviously such a point in time isn’t on record, but one can only assume, based on human behavior, that the shadow, as it does all living beings, intrigued early humans.

As a stupendous example of shadow fascination, one of my Doodles of Mayhem™, the perspicacious Willow, has been known, while on a brisk walk, to chase the shadow of a bird on the pavement before her, and face-plant in an attempt to catch her prey.

Around 1420, Giovanni de Fontana recorded the first use of an optical projection by lantern. He included an image of a man holding a lantern, projecting the image of the devil on a wall. The lantern shows a small cut-out of the devil, while the wall shows a much larger version. Fontana describes it as a nocturnal appearance for terrifying viewers.1

[The text reads: Apperentia nocturna ad terorem videntium.]

Camera Obscura

The Romans invented the camera obscura, or dark chamber, though the term has only been in use since 1604. It works by allowing a bright light, usually sunlight, through a pinhole or lens in the wall. Through this whole, the image projects onto the opposite wall. The camera obscura, sometimes referred to as a pinhole camera, is actually a predecessor of the modern photographic camera.

Reads, "Fig 7. Camera obscura". The images shows a building's image through a hole in the side of a building where the image is projected upside down on an interior wall. An X shows the crossing of the light's rays.
Source: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/camera_obscura/co_one.html

The image from a camera obscura is projected upside down, reversed left to right, and has a very low luminosity.2 The reason for the image appearing upside down is due to the crossing of the light’s rays through the hole. (See image above.)

To Be Seen: By desire of several Gentlemen and Ladies, The Solar or Camera Obscura Microscope which has given such general satisfaction, and so great a Concourse of Gentlemen and Ladies continually attend to see it…House of Mr. John Kip in Broad Street, where the Sun will serve all the Day long…
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

The camera obscura was useful in studying solar eclipses without damaging the eyes. Artists also used it to enhance accuracy in their designs.

In the 18th century, it evolved for entertaining purposes.

Magic Lantern

The magic lantern takes the technology of the camera obscura and advances it to the next level, using moving glass slides with painted images on them. In this way, it was the predecessor to the slide show. Early images included a gun in which a red, fiery discharge shoots out before the bullet does.

A set of 4 images of children playing in the snow. 1 sledding, 2 building a snowman, 3 snowball fight, 4 ice skating
Source: Digital Museum

Later, projectionists stacked glass slides together for depictions like a ship at sea during a storm. The scene would start with a calm sea, slowly increasing in movement by manipulating the individual slides until the ship bounced dangerously on the waves.

A crowd is frightened by images of the devil and a death's head floating above them in the dark.
Ghostly illusions by magic lantern. 18th c. Source: Library of Congress

Images from the magic lantern were projected onto smoke and moved about the room, creating the illusion of flying ghosts. These phantasmagoria (horror) shows were meant to frighten audiences.

Peep Show

The peep show, which had a very different connotation then than it does now, was another popular form of entertainment for colonists. Taking the experience to a personal level, the magic lantern’s glass slides, like the camera obscura before it, were constructed inside a box with a viewing hole. These new scenes depicted depth and movement by manipulating lenses and light. The peep show was the predecessor of the stereoscope. 

Man stands at his peep show box. Three children in front of it, looking into the holes. An older lady waits in a chair.
Theodor Hosemann, 1835. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Remember Mr. John Bonnin from my Living Monsters and Curiosity blog post? He’d surely be offended if you didn’t, considering he was his greatest promoter.

I realize this gets confusing, but in 1748, Mr. Bonnin used the mechanics of the peep show and projected the images onto a screen using mirrors, instead of a viewing in a box. This way, he could draw a large crowd at once to show off his “Philosophical Optical Machine.” In this way, he brought “most of the famous palaces and gardens in England, France, and Italy[,] … the siege of Barcelona, and the cities of Rome, Naples, and Venice.”3

“Instead of the common Chat, there is nothing scarce mentioned now but the most entertaining parts of Europe.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

For the colonists who were homesick or had never been to England, this gave them a chance to imagine walking through the pleasure gardens and palaces of London. These included Kensington, Hampton-Court, Vaux Hall, Ranelagh House, among others.

New York Gazette: 
We hear that Mr. Bonnin is so crowded with company to view his perspectives that he can scarce get even so much time as to eat, drink, or say his prayers, from the time he gets out of bed till he repairs to it again.

1748
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

These shows were so popular, they ran from “eight o’clock in the morning and continued showing until nine at night.”

Here is a terrific example of a peep show scene:
Six overlapping hand-colored engraved panels. Approx. 6½x8x15 when extended in apparatus. Scene depicts garden fountains, gates and a flower garden surrounded by tall hedges. Numerous people are also depicted, including a musician, children, lovers embracing, etc.

Peep show of a garden scene, as described.
Mid 18th Century Peep Show of a Garden Scene,
c. 1750. Mart. Engelbrecht

Your Turn

If you’d like to make your own peep show, here is a tutorial:

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/make-your-own-paper-peepshow

If you do make one, please send me a pic and I’ll it add here!
hallie [@] halliealexanderauthor [.] com

Footnotes:

  1.  http://www.magiclantern.org.uk/history/
  2. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/camera_obscura/co_one.html
  3. John Bonnin

Sources:

  • About Magic Lanterns
  • F.W., “Peep-Show Prints,” Bulletin of the New-York Public Library 25, no. 6 (June 1921), p 364.
  • Optical Instruments Used with Prints in the Eighteenth Century
  • Scribner, V. (2019). Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. United States: NYU Press.
  • Singleton, E. (1902). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets, and Country Homes, with Chapters on Fashions, Furniture, China, Plate, and Manners. United States: D. Appleton.

Lydia thwarts her father's plans for a match at the winter ball while the man she was supposed to marry, smuggler & soldier, thwarts his ambush.
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