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.

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Living Monsters & Curiosities

Just like their European cousins, American colonists enjoyed cabinets of curiosities, public shows, and really anything that might entertain, educate, or, to be honest, offend my 21st century sensibilities.1 It wasn’t just about seeing the exhibits; it was about being the first and then having the pleasure of talking about them after. 

The elite of New York might assemble in their stately homes to discuss paintings and vases, but they also might join the lesser classes in taverns and private homes to view traveling exhibits the world had never seen before.

The Greatest (Colonial) Showman

There is no good way for me to introduce Mr. John Bonnin, 18th century advertiser and showman of curiosities, except by his own words:

“There’s no Body can set up the least Face for Politeness and Conversation, without having been to Mr. Bonnin.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

What were colonists coming to view in his home near the New Dutch Church, a couple of streets north of city hall? Why, porcupines of various colors and crab fishes.

To Be Seen: A curious live Porcupine armed with Darts which resemble Writing Pens, tho of different colors, and which he shoots at any Adversary with ease when angry or attacked tho otherwise of great good humor and Gentleness.
John Bonnin’s advertisement for a colorful porcupine.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Two years prior to the rainbow porcupine, he exhibited the “greatest curiosity in nature.” Mr. Bonnin’s own advertisement claimed it was beyond “our power to fully describe.” The crab fish must have looked fairly special, for I cannot find an image to go along with it. Apparently it was a petrified fish sandwiched between crab shells.

Competitive Curiosities

Electrical Fish: Those who choose to gratify their curiosity by viewing this very extraordinary production of nature, at the small expense of two shillings each, are desired to attend speedily.
John Rowdon’s advertisement for an electrical fish.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Mr. Bonnin, of course, had competition.

Mr. John Rawdon, hairdresser of Broad Street, which curved from the East River near the bottom of Manhattan up to City Hall, exhibited a “wonderful electrical fish.”

Roger Magrah showed off his four foot long “living” alligator to anyone willing to pay the admittance fee.

And, lastly, Captain Seymour of the ship, Fame, thought he could do better than the others by bringing home two lionesses and two ostriches from the African coast. However, the ostriches did not survive the passage. I dread to think what else was among his cargo.

Waxworks

Waxworks, as well as Punch and Judy puppet shows, were very popular not just for entertainment but for colonists to familiarize themselves with the Royal Family of various European countries. As traveling exhibits, they were shown for a limited time, typically in taverns, from seven in the morning until six at night.

18th century waxworks: Musée de la Révolution française.
Source: Wikimedia

There is one unfortunate event that occurred involving an extensive waxwork collection that came to an abrupt and embroiled end.

Mrs. Wright was an “ingenious” artist and mother who worked from home. Her sculptures were said to be very lifelike, which I can only imagine took a lot of time to produce. I don’t know what kind of mother she was, nor what kind of help she had in raising them, or even how old they were. And, without these details, I am making a wild assumption based on the available facts.

All that is to say, while she was “abroad” with her children left at home, one of them set fire to a curtain surrounding one of her sculptures. Neighbors and fire-engines saved the house and most of their valuables, however the entirety of her waxworks succumbed to the flames.

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr2 in the title roles of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). Source: Paramount, Public Domain

Two months later, she exhibited two new sculpture sets, one being the murder of Cain by Abel, the other, the Treachery of Delilah to Sampson.

Go ahead, I won’t judge. I think Mrs. Wright was deep in her feels and had some things to work out.

Next Week

Peep Shows and Magic Lanterns! I promise this is safe for all eyes. We will examine optical entertainments of the time.

18th Century Peep Show: Victoria and Albert Museum Online

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to know the range of what entertained colonists, however offensive material will never appear in my fiction, therefore my blog won’t be the place to read about them either. This also isn’t the right space to examine the social, political, or just plain ignorant things 18th century folks found entertaining. I recommend the Singleton book in my sources to begin your research.
  2. The same Hedy Lamarr who invented wi-fi in 1941.

Sources:

  • Bushman, R. L. (2011). The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. United Kingdom: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  • 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.

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Pleasure Gardens

This week, as I plan some fun for my characters, I’m visiting the old pleasure gardens of New York. While London’s Covent Garden had her ladies, as well as markets and a variety of entertainments, the pleasure gardens of 18th century Manhattan were private, walled-off parks one had to pay an admission fee to enter. That is, they were not public venues run by the city.

A quick note about green spaces in the 18th century: Manhattan provided “common” fields that were used for public markets, grazing livestock, and military parades. These spaces were not meant for relaxation or entertainment. Wealthy colonists wanted more from their city. Those who had business acumen rose to the challenge.

Green Dragon Tavern,
Boston, Massachusetts 1773

Our journey begins with the urban taverns in colonial America. These drinking establishments quickly became places to meet and be social. Many had adjacent gardens. “By attaching the earliest commercial pleasure gardens to pre-existing ‘open’ spas and taverns, New York City’s businessmen minimized their financial risks while also providing demanding clientele yet another reason to visit their establishment.”1

1740 — Spring Garden

Shortly after, in 1740, came the Spring Garden—so named for its seasonal operation—on what would now be Broadway, Fulton, Nassau, and Ann streets. Not only did it feature a tavern, but offered Georgian-style geometric gravel paths through cultivated shrubbery. If you could pay the fee, about two shillings, you were welcome.

A pleasure garden with a gazebo, wide lawn, a pond, lots of people milling about.
This is actually the New York Palace Garden, 1858. There are very few images of New York’s pleasure gardens from the 18th century. (Source: NYPL)

The Spring Garden tavern hosted balls, magic shows, tumbling acts, feats of strength (including a Female Samson), and musical concerts. These entertainments, as well as the bucolic atmosphere, were a welcome relief and cultural respite to the citizens of Manhattan, especially as the city grew and became more crowded.

1750 — Mead Garden

Adam Vandenberg was a very successful promoter who owned and ran a tavern called the Drovers’ Inn, a pleasure garden called Mead Garden, and a horse race-course all situated on his farm, Church Farm, by the Hudson River. [Astor House would eventually be built on this site.] In March of 1743, there was a race between a mare named Ragged Kate belonging to Mr. Peter De Lancey, and a horse named Monk belonging to the Honorary William Montagu Esq, for £200.2

1765 — Ranelagh Garden

Ranelagh (pronounced “Ran-lee”) Garden, named for its London counterpart, occupied a wooded rise of ground just north of the northernmost city houses, not far from the smaller Vauxhall Garden. The two gardens directly competed in the form of fireworks exhibitions. Each offered limited engagements, bigger and bolder spectacles, and “never seen before” designs.

At the request of several gentlemen and ladies there will be a concert twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, 6.30 p.m. (Ranelagh Garden Concert). Small fireworks will be played off and  the best entertainment as usual, notwithstanding the artful insinuations of some ill-minded people to the contrary.
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

1767 — Vauxhall Garden

Portrait of Samuel Fraunces, 1770-1785, unknown.
Portrait of Samuel Fraunces (circa-1770-1785), unknown artist.
(Source: Wikimedia)

In 1767, the owner of the Queen’s Head Tavern on Pearl Street, known today as Fraunces Tavern for its most famous proprietor, Samuel Fraunces, brought Vauxhall Garden to Manhattan. It was originally located at Spring Hill, a villa on the Hudson River not far from Mead Garden. Like its namesake in London, Vauxhall offered a variety of entertainments: tea or coffee in the afternoon, summer concerts, shady trees and hedges, a variety of flowers, an outdoor wax museum, and at night, a fireworks show.

Vauxhall Gardens have been newly fitted up in a very genteel pleasing Manner... now open for the Reception of Ladies, Gentlemen, etc., and will be illuminated every evening in the Week; Coffee, Tea, and Hot Rolls at any hour in the day, neat Wines and other Liquors, with Cakes, as usual... also Dinners or Suppers, dressed in the most Elegant manner on timely Notice.
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Vauxhall was considered a summer resort at the “most rural retreat any way near this city” (advertisement, New York Gazette, 1766), though in actuality, it was all of a mile from the tip of Manhattan.

A map layout of  Vauxhall Garden.
Vauxhall Garden: originally on Greenwich Street, it moved to Broadway and the Bowery in 1803. (Source: Wikimedia)

It operated until the American Revolution when much of it was destroyed. When Fraunces sold it in 1773, before the War, it had “two large gardens, a house with four rooms per floor and twelve fireplaces, and a dining hall that was 56 feet long and 26 feet wide, with a kitchen below.”3

As the city expanded, many of these gardens were demolished for commercial buildings. Ranelagh became the New York Hospital with Royal Governor Tryon witnessing the laying of the corner-stone. Vauxhall became the Cupula Iron Furnace. Not that it was the end of New York’s pleasure gardens, but the industrial revolution and urban spread created a shift in how New Yorkers lived, worked, and relaxed.

Spoiler Alert:
New Yorkers still needed a green space to retreat from the city. Plans for developing Central Park began in 1840. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

View of Central Park
Central Park, New York 1875 (Source: NYPL)

Sources:

1 Caldwell, Mark (2005). New York Night: The Mystique and Its History. New York City: Scribner.

2 Bayles, W. Harrison (2020). Old Taverns of New York. Outlook Verlag.

3 Singleton, E. (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902). United States: Lightning Source.


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