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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

Changing Entertainment: The Magic Lantern and the Nineteenth Century

13th September 2017, 17:30 to 19:00, Alington House, 4 North Bailey, Phillip Roberts

Experience an original (working) 1821 Phantasmagoria Lantern, and discover how this device transformed entertainment in the nineteenth century. Part of our Late Summer Lectures Series.

About this talk

‘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.

About Phillip Roberts

I am a researcher working with the National Science and Media Museum and University of York. I am writing a history of the magic lantern in the 19th century, aiming to show the many interrelated causes of the magic lantern industry and its ongoing effects on visual media over the following decades. I have published work in Film History, Cultural Politics, The Magic Lantern, The Science Museum Journal, Deleuze Studies and Early Popular Visual Culture and am the editor of three special issues on media culture.

Contact for more information about this event.

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