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Peabody Magic Lantern Collection (1800-2006) | Special Collections & University Archives

Name: Peabody Magic Lantern Collection (1800-2006)


Historical Note:

The magic lantern has a long and varied history as a scientific and optical instrument.  In 1658, a Dutch scientist named Christiaan Huygens developed the magic lantern.  This new instrument required an illuminant, a chimney, and a special lens system, and could project images from glass slides onto walls and other surfaces.

Although initially used for education and religious instruction by Jesuits and wealthy academics, the magic lantern was used for entertainment purposes first by Thomas Walgenstein, a mathematician, who began using the lantern to conjure ghosts in the 1660s for wealthy and royal audiences.  These supernatural performances led to the creation of the Phantasmagoria, a lantern show featuring ghosts, skeletons, devils and other gothic figures. In the late eighteenth century, magic lanterns moved from the private to public sphere. Traveling lanternists held entertaining shows in public taverns and barns.  Despite this move towards public entertainment, the Enlightenment's emphasis on science and education greatly elevated the magic lantern as a scientific and educational tool.

Gradually, entertainment, advertising, and propaganda became major contenders with religion, education, and science as primary lantern uses. The lantern's ability to adapt to so many different types of usage made it standard optical equipment in homes, churches, public spaces, and academic institutions during the Victorian Era.   By the 1880's, less cumbersome lightweight lanterns, coupled with standardized slide sizes, further strengthened the magic lantern's growing popularity.  From mass-produced toy lanterns, to an increased presence in schools, institutions, lectures and churches, the magic lantern was a ubiquitous and highly useful instrument in most educational and entertainment domains.

Even at the dawn of the moving picture in the early twentieth century, the magic lantern still managed to maintain its place as a visual aid. Many movie theaters continued to use the lantern to make management announcements, show advertisements, or entertain the crowd before the start of the movie.  But the lantern's time in the limelight waned by the middle of the twentieth century.  The modern slide projector had fully superseded the magic lantern's role as a visual aid, and moving film technology no longer required the magic lantern as a backup.

Dr. Homer Peabody was a prominent San Diego doctor who specialized in pulmonary diseases.   He and his wife, Betty, began collecting magic lanterns as well as other optical instruments during the 1970s.  The Peabodys were active members in the Magic Lantern Society of the United States and Canada, as well as the Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain, and often entertained friends and family with magic lantern shows at their home.  They acquired the majority of their collection through auctions and antique dealers.

Note Author: Amanda Lanthorne





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