Changing Entertainment: The Magic Lantern and the Nineteenth Century (Public lecture, 13th September)


Roll up, roll up! Come to Alington House, Durham, on 13th September and experience a real, working Victorian magic lantern. Join Phillip Roberts at our next Late Summer Lecture, as he explores how this invention lit up a new world of entertainment.

‘Times are changed, and all for the worser’. Henry Mayhew, the great investigative reporter, once interviewed a street showman about the changing entertainment landscape over the early decades of the 19th century. As the commercial revolution gathered pace and manufacturers produced ever-increasing quantities of toys, instruments and media trinkets, the earlier traditions of showmanship started to dissipate in a new culture of ‘respectable’ entertainment. The showman complained: ‘Green’s dead, and all in the line’s dead, but me. The galantee show don’t answer, because magic lanterns are so cheap in the shops. When we started, magic lanterns wasn’t so common; but we cant keep hold of a good thing in these times.’

At the end of the 18th century the lantern was used as an entertainment device by travelling entertainers. It had an unseemly reputation as a device of the necromancers and charlatans, having long since lost its association with experimental science. The lantern market began to change in the first few decades of the 19th century as the lantern was taken up by new manufacturers and sold as a consumer novelty to the increasingly affluent middle classes. This was the era of the first consumer media technologies; the lantern, the thaumatrope and the praxinoscope brought fantastic visions into the homes of middle-class people and disrupted centuries old traditions of popular storytellers, who now struggled to find audiences. Jean-Antoine Nollet said that the lantern peddler’s fame had made them ridiculous in the eyes of many people.

Using an original (working) 1821 Phantasmagoria Lantern and slides from across the first half of the 19th century (plus some new slides painted especially), I will tell the story of this transformative moment in the history of media and entertainment. I will show how the new technologies of media helped to shift visual media away from popular storytelling traditions towards a new consumer culture driven by middle-class spending habits.

Late Summer Lectures runs every Wednesday at 17.30 until 4th October. Come and find out about topics ranging from Victorian magic lanterns, to British poetry of the coast. Join the conversation on Twitter via #LateSummerLectures.

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