Are ‘magic lantern’ slides valuable?

‘Magic lantern’: Glass plates were used for educational purposes and entertainment.
‘Magic lantern’: Glass plates were used for educational purposes and entertainment.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Q: We are wondering about this box of about 50 glass slides with pictures from all over the United States. Everything from Niagara Falls to old railroad cars. They were distributed by the Keystone View Company in Meadville, Pa. Think they may be of interest to a library or college? Any help would be great.

A: The Keystone View Company was started in Meadville, Pa., in 1892 by B.L. Singley, who was a native Pennsylvanian born in Union Township in 1864. Singley came to Meadville in 1886 to attend Allegheny College’s Preparatory Department and stayed there until 1889 when he married Meadville resident, Anna Caraway.

While at Allegheny, he was introduced to stereograph photography (two nearly identical photographs mounted on a card to give a three dimensional effect when viewed through a stereoscope). He was intrigued and felt that stereo photography was a good method for teaching students.

Singley’s first photograph was of the flooding of Meadville by French Creek in 1892. He turned photos of this event into stereo views and by 1895 he was selling approximately 700 different views. The company expanded into making stereoscopes and by 1905 was the largest company of its kind in the world.

In 1905, Keystone inaugurated its Educational Department and began selling stereo views and glass magic lantern slides (and equipment) to schools across the United States – and it is these glass magic lantern slides made by Keystone after 1905 that are featured in today’s question.

The magic lantern has a long history dating back to the 15th century, and no one is really sure who actually invented it — or if it was originated by any one individual. There is some thought that the first crude “magic” lantern was invented by Venetian engineer, Giovanni Fontana, who used it to project an image of a demon.

However, many give credit to Christiaan Huygens, who is said to have invented the original lantern in the 1650s. Other people developed “magic” lanterns, and most lanterns were used to project monstrous and scary images, and the device became known as the “lantern of fright.”

The lantern was often used by magicians and others who wanted to scare their audiences with images of phantoms and “phantasms” (even with fake images of bringing the dead back to life). The magic lantern did not come to the United States the last half of the 19th century, and then it was used by magicians and those who wanted to present strip tease shows and pornography without having real live women.

But magic lanterns were also used for entertainment of a more “vanilla” sort and, as we mentioned earlier, for educational purposes. Of her 50 (or so) magic lantern slides, P. M. has sent us photographs of a locomotive with engineer, and most interesting of all, Thomas Alva Edison standing behind some machinery, which we presume is in his Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory.

The train itself should probably retail in the $4 to $8 range, but the Edison could bring as much as $75 to $100. The remaining lot of early 20th century slides is probably worth only $75 to $100 at retail — unless there are some interesting examples and views of which we are not aware. Generally, these would not be of interest to most libraries or colleges.

Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email If you’d like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.

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