Being hypnotized by screens sounds like a modern affliction, or at least a 20th-century one: before our iPhones, there was TV; before that, the movies. But before that, surely, entertainment was a rich diet of live performance, readings, perhaps a public dance?
Not exactly. For centuries before the first motion pictures, audiences sat transfixed by screens in a technology all but forgotten now: “magic lantern” presentations, in which lively and dramatic pictures were projected through painted-glass slides onto a screen. The technology was invented in 1659 by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, and over the following centuries, came to be a popular way to tell stories and jazz up presentations.
Magic lantern slides were a formidable medium in their own right. They were created first on paper, then photographed, then reduced and printed on 13-inch square panes of glass and projected onto 25-foot screens, a huge format that allowed for richly detailed images and lush colors. They were often used to accompany “illustrated lectures, equivalent to the Discovery channel or Nova,” says Terry Borton, a modern-day magic lantern showman who runs the American Magic Lantern Theater in East Haddam, Conn. Magic lantern performers could also approximate a moving image, by stacking two slides in the projector and moving one in front of the other.
Magic lantern shows gave rise to a centralized industry with big players, including a few artists who wielded amazing influence over what America saw. In a new book, “Before the Movies,” Terry and Debbie Borton tell the story of a late 19th- and early 20th-century magic-lantern artist named Joseph Boggs Beale, who lived in near anonymity but whose illustrated glass slides were among the most widely viewed form of visual entertainment of his time.
The most important staff artist for the C.W. Briggs Company of Philadelphia, a major distributor of magic lantern slides, Beale created 2,076 slides over the course of his career, illustrating everything from “The Raven” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to dramatic presentations of the events of Spanish-American War, and even slides that were projected during the rituals of fraternal societies. “This artist [Beale] almost single-handedly created American-made screen entertainment and songs for the generation before the movies,” says Terry Borton.
Beale’s slide illustrations were far more widely distributed than any other single artist’s, and the Bortons think that popularity owes to several key features of his work. Beale understood how to use color tones and perspective to walk viewers into his images, while also sustaining a level of detail that fit the way the slides were used. “His pictures were just packed full of detail, because these slides might be up on the screen for a minute or so while a poem is being read and all of that detail helped to sustain attention,” Terry Borton says.
Even the most elaborate magic lantern slides were no match for motion pictures, which were invented in the 1890s, and became a craze a decade later with the advent of nickelodeon indoor theaters. Beale was laid off from the Briggs Company in 1909, and over the coming decades, a form of entertainment that stretched back to the Renaissance waned in significance — though magic lantern slides continued to circulate well into the 1960s among medical specialists, who favored the large format they provided. Today, magic-lantern entertainment seems nearly prehistoric, but perhaps it’s time for a comeback. Anyone who’s had to sit through a deadening PowerPoint presentation would probably be grateful if it had been illustrated instead by Joseph Boggs Beale.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.