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.

 

Finding George Washington

George Washington (1732-1799) is famously inscrutable. And yet I found him, hanging on the wall at the Powel House (b. 1765) in Philadelphia. Rather, I found his shadow in the form of a silhouette, pencil lines and all. On the reserve, the silhouette reads, “General Washington, a bad likeness.”

George Washington's Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA
George Washington’s Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA

This “bad” likeness breathes life into the Powel House’s withdrawing room but also into Washington. Samuel Powel (1738-1793), Philadelphia mayor from 1775-1776 and 1789-1790, made the portrait himself, in 1787. Known as a hollow-cut silhouette, Powel crafted it by tracing Washington’s shadow on a light-colored substrate, cutting away the outline, and backing it with blue paper after socializing over tea with Washington’s brother John (1736-1787) and none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

Fun among friends. What’s more personal than that?

My original purpose for visiting the Powel House was to check out an example of a Philadelphia “ballroom” that probably inspired party rooms like the one at my beloved George Read House in New Castle, Delaware. It was great to see this comparable space in person and to get a sense of what Read was likely trying to replicate or imitate in his New Castle Home.

To my delight, I found much more than some nice rooms at the Powel house. I also found George Washington.

Further Reading and Looking

Visit the Powel House, a Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks property. You can see the original Powel House interiors at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Preservationists and antiquarians “saved” them when the Powel House faced demolition in the early twentieth century.

For a technical analysis of historic silhouettes, see Penley Knipe, “Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Online, Vol. 41, No. 3, Article 1: 203-223.

For a history of silhouettes made and used among Philadelphia Quakers in the early republic, see Anne Verplank, “The Silhouette and Quaker Identity in Early National Philadelphia,” Winterthur Portfolio 43, 1 (Spring 2009): 41-78.

For a list of portraits of Washington made from life, see “Life Portraits of George Washington,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/artwork/life-portraits-of-george-washington/.

Mount Vernon recently acquired a silhouette of Washington made in 1791. Read more about that likeness, for which Washington probably did no sit, here.

Check out historian Joseph M. Adelman’s thoughtful essay, “George Washington, Man of Mystery,” for a reflection on Washington’s mythic stature in American life.

Learn about what it takes to choose and be the “official” George Washington in this fascinating documentary, Being George.