How magic lanterns became 19th-century Netflix

The devices were particularly popular for Christmas and birthdays.

Victorian families were able to enjoy their own version of Netflix by utilising an early form of “pay-per-view” entertainment to while away winter evenings, new research has found.

Nineteenth-century households were able to have access to hundreds of images of far and exotic lands, comic scenes and classic novels, all from the comfort of their homes after magic lanterns and stereoscopes became available to hire.

While magic lanterns existed from the early 1600s, they were an expensive item which only the most affluent could hope to own.

Magic lanterns findings
A Bath Chronicle newspaper cutting of a note by the London Stereoscopic Company Circulating Library (University of Exeter)

A study has discovered the then state-of-the-art equipment, and thousands of lantern slides, were available for more average families to use after opticians, photographers and stationers made magic lanterns available for loan.

They also loaned out 3D photographic views after another device, the stereoscope, became popular in the 1850s.

The practice, which was discovered by analysing local newspaper adverts from the period, showed that the service, which could even include hiring a lantern operator to host the viewing, was particularly popular at Christmas and for children’s birthdays.

The findings were unveiled at the British Association for Victorian Studies 2018 Annual Conference at the University of Exeter.

Professor John Plunkett, from the University of Exeter, said: “We know Victorian families were enthralled by magic lanterns and stereoscopes, and now we know this drove a thriving commercial practice of hiring lanterns and slides. This really was the Netflix of its time.

“From the 1840s onwards, opticians, stationers and photographers supplemented their business by hiring viewing devices and content out.

“Many of the magic lanterns were also made and operated by the opticians. Just like Netflix or the many stores that hired out videos and PC games, this was a way of getting access to much more visual media than you could ever afford to buy.”

The earliest example found by Prof Plunkett is an advertisement in the Morning Post from 1824, when an optician on London’s Oxford Street offered “The Magic Lantern sent out for an evening”.

Lanterns first became available to hire in Exeter, Bristol and Plymouth from the 1840s.

At Christmas in 1843, Thomas Bale, a watchmaker and optician based at 11 Broadmead in Bristol advertised lanterns for hire with “Astronomical, Scriptural, Natural History and Comic Slides”.

From the 1850s, there was a thriving culture of home entertainment. Rather than going to the pictures, the pictures would come to you.

The magic lanterns and stereoscopes available for hire were often top-of-the range versions that were too expensive for most of the public to buy and hiring was also a way of seeing the latest slides or 3D views.

Prof Plunkett added: “Hiring a lantern and slides was very much an expensive treat for the middle classes, especially if they wanted a lanternist too.

“As the century went on it became much more affordable. After 1880, local businesses were pushed out of the market as the lantern slide industry became more centralised.”

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