Shining a Light on Magic Lanterns

Imagine it’s 1955. You’re out by Silverwood Lake, enjoying summer vacation. The sun is hot on the shore and you can hear your dad snapping away, taking pictures of you, mom, and your little brother. You have a feeling that these pictures are going to come up at the next family reunion; your dad just got a new slide projector and he can’t get enough of it. Maybe for the rest of vacation you’ll hide in the water.

But what came before the slide projector? A device invented, most likely by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, in the 1600s. Lit up from within by candlelight, film slides projected pictures on the walls and sometimes even moved. When early audiences saw these images – some scary, some awe-inspiring – suddenly appear on the wall, as if by magic, the device was named the Magic Lantern.

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Currently on display in the Inventing a Better Life exhibit, located in the Carriage Barn.

Over time, the lanterns worked using oil lamps instead of candlelight. Now, of course, they are powered by electricity and are known as “slide projectors”. However, by the 1700s the Magic Lantern was a common form of entertainment and education. The earliest show held in the United States for “the Entertainment of the Curious” took place in Salem, Massachusetts on December 3, 1743. Shows were exciting and popular. To catch a glimpse of history, you can visit Santa Fe Springs’ own Magic Lantern at the Heritage Park Carriage Barn and Historical Museum.

For more information visit: magiclanternsociety.org

The Original American Puzzle

Often, at the Carriage Barn, we like to look at old artifacts and research how they fit into the cultural landscape of their time. The wooden puzzle box in our permanent collection represents the leisure activity of many wealthy Americans at the turn of the century. This puzzle box was most likely created in the early 20th century. It displays a beautiful Victorian design and offers six different puzzles for families to complete.

Puzzles became a craze in American culture during the early 20th century. However, prior to the 1930s, puzzles were fairly expensive and often only well-off families owned them. This is because most puzzles were made of wood, like the one shown below. We can surmise that this particular puzzle box was most likely owned by a financially established family. The tide change in puzzle ownership came with the Great Depression.

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The Great Depression influenced countless aspects of daily life among Americans. Interestingly, one industry heavily influenced by the Great Depression was the puzzle making industry. Depression-era Americans were constantly looking for cheap and easy forms of entertainment. Despite initially being a recreational activity for the wealthy, puzzles were given new life in the 1930s when entrepreneurs began mass-producing them by using heavy cardboard, rather than wood. By 1934 3.5 million puzzles had been sold throughout the U.S. and, according to a 1938 poll by the National Recreation Association, puzzles were named one of the most frequent at-home activities.1

Though popularity has waned for puzzles since the Great Depression, a plethora of puzzle communities, competitions, and puzzle-player websites prove that this activity will continue to hold a special place in American culture.

 

  1. “Everyday Living.” Great Depression and the New Deal Reference Library, edited by Allison McNeill, et al., vol. 1: Almanac, UXL, 2003, pp. 187-211. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3425600022/GVRL?u=sant46959&sid=GVRL&xid=f4101ebd. Accessed 16 Jan. 2019.

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The Camera Revolution

With the holiday season coming to a close, we can take a few moments at the beginning of the New Year to reflect on the time spent with family and friends. A cornerstone of the holidays has, for nearly a century, been the camera. Almost everyone has that one family member that just has to get a few good pictures of everyone together. With the advent of social media, the desire to get that perfect picture has only increased.

The Carriage Barn currently hosts multiple cameras in our permanent exhibit. A personal favorite of mine is the Agfa box camera. This camera is a later replication of the original, and similarly styled, Brownie box cameras sold by the Eastman Kodak Company in the early 20th Century. The invention of this inexpensive, accessible, and user-friendly camera helped bridge a technological divide. Prior to the release of the Brownie box camera, photography was almost exclusively an activity for the wealthy. Inventor Frank Brownell changed this by creating the Brownie box camera and, subsequently, revolutionizing photography.

Agfa Box Camera
Agfa Box Camera, currently on display at the Carriage Barn.

Dr Michael Pritchard, president of the Royal Photographic Society and the author of The History of Photography in 50 Cameras, has this to say about the Brownie box camera:

“A $1 or 25-shilling camera capable of producing reasonable results was innovative, and coupled with Kodak’s ability to provide directly or through an enormous number of chemists and photographic retailers a developing and printing service meant that photography became accessible irrespective of your social class or photographic skills.”1

The Agfa box camera currently on display was created by German imaging company Agfa, now known as Agfa-Gevaert. The box camera works similarly to the human eye. A shutter at the front of the camera opens and allows light to pass through the lens. This light is reflected from the object being photographed. As the light moved through the lens it is inverted and reflected onto a strip of film.

So, this New Year, when scrolling through the holiday photos on your phone, be sure to give a quick thanks to Frank Brownell!

 

  1. Dowling, Stephen. “The most important cardboard box ever?” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30530268 (December 31, 2018).

 

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