In Search of Magic

Walking toward the Wagner Free Institute of Science near Temple University in Philadelphia in October, I was a little nervous. My friend Hannah and I thought we were going to go back in time and never return.

Why the concern, you ask?

We attended an annual magic lantern slide salon, of course. You can think of magic lanterns as the pre-cursor to slide carousels, projectors, and perhaps even motion pictures. When they first became popular in the eighteenth century, magic lanterns projected their scenes on glass onto walls or other backgrounds using an artificial light source. In the nineteenth century, as the Brooklyn Museum explained, the slides and the machine provided a way for lots of people to learn from the new photographic medium. (Not all slides are of photographs, though.) Modern machines, like the one we saw at the festival, are electrified. The projector we saw holds two glass slides at a time that are swapped out manually. The Wagner was an exciting place to attend such a salon, as the auditorium dates to 1865 and has hosted many a magic lantern presentation.

I learned a lot from this event. Quite frankly, I thought the presentation would be more transformative (see reference to concern about going back in time). But in fact, the visual experience of seeing the slides merely echoed projector or slide carousel presentations. The images did appear more crisp than what contemporary projectors seem to be capable of reproducing. What I found most interesting was the breadth of lantern slide collections in the region and how underutilized they are as archival sources. There may be good reason for this. If you ever handle these slides, you sense immediately how fragile they are. You drop it, it breaks (speaking from experience at an antique mall last year).

But that did not stop these archivists from institutions as varied as the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Philadelphia Museum of Art from generously bringing their fragile collections to the Wagner and putting on a show. Some archivists used historic scripts. Others created wholly contemporary interpretations of old slides. Some mixed the two. We learned about how workers at the Stetson hat manufactory, which was based in Philadelphia, made its famous hat. We took a tour through the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And we all cooed over a basket of baby lions born at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The festival was part of Archives Month Philly. Looking forward to more fun events next year, even if we do not go back in time or confront magic. This was, after all, held at an Institute of Science.

Further Reading and Exploring

One consortium called A Million Pictures is preserving lantern slide heritage in Europe.

The Brooklyn Museum has digitized some of its lantern slides. You can find out more about that collection here.

Mira Lloyd Dock probably taught forestry at Penn State with this lantern slides.

The Brittingham family in Wisconsin recorded and remembered their lives with these gems.

 

A New Blog

Krimmel, Woman pressing and folding laundry, Downs Collection
John Lewis Krimmel, “Woman pressing and folding laundry,” 1819-1820, Winterthur Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, 59×5.5

I have been blogging about antiques and material culture since 2010, about a year after I graduated from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. I’ve found that blogging is a fun way to reflect on my adventures at flea markets and antique malls while providing readers–most of whom seem to come from the general public, though I have been cited in a published book about Italian interiors(!)–with an accessible scholarly perspective on what I observe and buy. My readers seem to dig it too. I’ve received emails from collectors asking me for my expertise on Berlin work, and I’ve received notes from people researching their ancestors who owned some of the objects I have acquired.

In addition to writing about antiquing, I have also written guest blog posts for the History of American Civilization Blog (my Ph.D. program’s blog), the University of Delaware Museum Studies blog, and the Disability and Industrial Society Blog on a variety of subjects raining from giving mini “TED” talks to cataloguing the contents of a “period room” decoy shop to how collecting disability history artifacts has advanced my research. Through these pieces, I have connected with the disability history field in Great Britain, for instance, a group of scholars from whom I have learned a lot.

I want to continue to pursue this line of blogging. So this new blog, housed on my academic website or e-portfolio, is meant to provide me with a more regular outlet for publishing my thoughts on the field (history) and what I do (teach, research, write, present, and visit museums and other culture heritage sites). I’ll still maintain the antiquing blog, of course. I simply didn’t want to clutter it with topics too far afield from Revolutionary War battle relics and why I didn’t buy a giant papier-mâché boar. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that antiquing is tangental to my scholarly work. In fact, it’s a fundamental part of how I learn about the material world I study.

So all that aside, I’d like to introduce myself to you via a John Lewis Krimmel sketch of a woman attending to her laundry around 1820. Kathleen Brown included it in her recent book Foul Bodies. There, she discusses the concept of “body work” as a central theme in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American culture. I agree that the image, focusing on the labor involved in cleaning textiles the body used, very much reflects this idea. It also reminds me a bit of my own workflow – something going on in every corner, all the time. I look forward to sharing some of that with you.

Further Reading

John Lewis Krimmel’s sketches and drawings at Winterthur are digitized here.

You can also read more about his work in Anneliese Harding’s John Lewis Krimmel: Genre Artist of the Early Republic (1994).

If you are interested in the history of the body, cleanliness, and illness in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, check out Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (2009).