Presence history: In thrall of the traveling stereopticon

[It’s easy to forget that the pursuit of presence experiences has a very long history; the fascinating, if long, story below is from the Otago Daily News where it includes a 5 image photo gallery. –Matthew]

Magic Langern slideshow 1897

[Image: A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter’s Basilica, 1897. An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York. Source: Art History Resources.]

In thrall of travelling stereopticon

Tue, 5 Jan 2016

In The Lives of Colonial Objects, even the seemingly ordinary can offer exceptional insights into New Zealand’s cultural fabric.

The following extract from the book sheds light on a magic lantern of sorts.

Frank Stanert packed up his stereopticon, its attendant glass slides, gas cylinders and additional equipment, at the end of April 1892 and left Philadelphia for a summer camp in Minnesota.

An ‘‘experienced stereoptician”, Stanert had learnt his trade in the city at the heart of the magic lantern business. William and Frederick Langenheim pioneered commercial photography in Philadelphia in the 1850s, and L.J. Marcy produced oil and gas ‘‘sciopticons” in the 1880s.

The stereopticon, so named in the 1860s, was a form of magic lantern usually with a double lens that allowed images to dissolve, creating the illusion of movement. The stereopticon was a sensation.

The Dayton Daily Empire recorded the impact of its ‘‘almost miraculous illusions and beauties” on crowds in Ohio in August 1864: ‘‘Those who have not seen it cannot conceive how perfectly and satisfactorily it opens to view the scenes and objects upon which it is brought to bear . . .

”The wire bridge over the Niagara river, the Niagara Falls, the Great Eastern, views in Paris, Rome, and throughout Europe, together with masterpieces of eminent sculptors, will be conjured into shadowy existence, and presented to the eye in such a manner as to impart in a large measure, the pleasure which would be enjoyed by beholding the real objects.”

In Stanert’s hands the stereopticon continued this tradition of making visible the scenic sights of the world, while adding a new dimension to popular instruction.

The magic lantern screen’s handpainted slides had been associated with ‘‘mystery and magic”. When the stereopticon came into use, photography largely supplanted painted slides and ‘‘enhanced the lifelike quality of the screen image”.

Photographic slides offered ‘‘a much more accurate record of reality”, which ‘‘overwhelmed” audiences. In short, these new magic lanterns moved beyond magic to be seen as ‘‘scientific”.

Stereopticons soon made their way to colonial New Zealand: an Oamaru watchmaker advertised them as early as November 1868.

The stereopticon promised 19th-century New Zealanders virtual travel to places they might have left behind, such as Edinburgh and London, or an introduction to places they might never visit, such as India, Japan or the Rocky Mountains.

Together, viewers might appreciate great works of art unavailable in the colony, learn of advances in microscopy or geology or merely be entertained by comic scenes.

They might also, however, be transported inwards to the hitherto unseen, and acquire anatomical knowledge that was usually the preserve of medical men. Education and amusement alike arrived on a grand scale through the stereopticon’s illuminations.

In addition, this ‘‘modern discovery” provided a new means of livelihood for those in the theatre business.

When all was in good working order, the stereopticon produced ‘‘crisp, clear images of astonishing scale”. Most such lanterns were ‘‘designed with transportation in mind”, with ‘‘collapsible screens and padded slide boxes”.

Operating the stereopticon required expertise to set up the slides and ensure the relatively large machine worked properly. Lime made incandescent by a jet of oxygen through an alcohol flame provided the illumination for the lantern, and meant the risk of fire and explosions.

Gas cylinders were an essential component to create a show. Stanert could not travel lightly and he needed to ensure that his equipment was packed properly. He and his stereopticon had a long way to go.

Stanert’s travelling companion on the train from Philadelphia was Dr Anna Longshore Potts, an itinerant lecturer on health for whom he was the stereoptician and stage manager.

One of the first medical graduates from Pennsylvania’s Female Medical College in 1851, Longshore Potts had found her true vocation in lecturing. Having perhaps exhausted the lecture circuits in the United States, she had set her sights on an Australasian tour.

The doctor and Stanert met up with the rest of their party in Chicago: J. Charles Harrison MD, who gave lectures on men’s health, his mother and his brother George, who was the business manager, and George’s wife.

They set up camp in the Minnesota woods and rehearsed their show, Stanert screening the stereopticon slides, and the doctors practising their timing carefully so that the smooth integration of voice and image allowed audiences to be transported into new visual worlds.

At the end of the summer it was time to pack up the stereopticon again for the train trip to San Francisco. There the stereoptician and his equipment boarded the SS Alameda for Honolulu as the advance party for Drs Harrison and Potts.

Soon the stereopticon was unpacked for lectures to women and men at the Royal Hawaiian Opera House.

George Harrison made sure the lectures were well advertised, and the press notice reveals that the dual nature of the programme, providing entertainment as well as education, scenic and artistic wonders as well as instruction on the human body, was established from the beginning of the tour.

The lectures would ‘‘be magnificently illustrated with stereopticon views not only of the subjects discussed, but also of art and travel.

They were especially prepared for these lectures, and most of them are in colors. There will be many views of scenery in Uncle Sam’s domains, and among the finest are some of the famous Yellowstone Park”.

Dr Charles Harrison’s lecture to ‘‘old men, young men, and men of all sorts and condition of life” was ‘‘made up of common sense, bright bits of humor, vivid dissolving views and a great mass of information”.

Attendees had to be over 16 and a police officer manned the door to ensure that was the case. ‘‘Many of the views,” the report continued, ‘‘were very fine, and those of a medical character usefully illustrative, but not sensational.”

Not everyone agreed.

Soon a warrant was issued by the Liberal newspaper, perhaps in the interest of generating sales, for the arrest of Harrison ‘‘for exhibiting foul illustrations”. According to the Liberal, ‘‘The whole tone of the lecture and the pictures shown tended towards vileness”.

Harrison was tried on the charge of being a common nuisance for the public exhibition of ‘‘certain obscene pictures, being a public outrage against common decency and good morals”.

The stereopticon slides now became exhibits in the courtroom. A Dr Wood was sworn in and gave evidence: ‘‘I . . . saw pictures exhibited of males’ and female private parts; they were stereopticon slides thrown on a screen; male organs were shown first, then sectional view of female parts; I thought they were objectionable before a promiscuous audience; thought such pictures of the opposite sex should not be shown before an audience that was not composed of medical or scientific people; thought it was out of place . . . I have seen the same pictures used in lectures to medical students, shown in just the same way.

Although the stereopticon offered an unparalleled opportunity to educate the public on all aspects of science, some sights, according to Dr Wood, should be restricted to the male medical profession.

In contrast, a number of other witnesses testified that there was nothing indecent or likely ‘‘to create lustful thoughts in the minds of lads” in the lecture and the charge against Harrison was dismissed.

Once again the stereopticon and its related equipment were packed up, this time for the voyage of the SS Mariposa to Auckland, where a seven-month tour of New Zealand began through the main centres and minor towns, enchanting audiences with the stereopticon views and expanding the public’s knowledge about matters of health. Both doctors provided consultations as an adjunct to their lectures.

The Ashburton Guardian reported on the first of Harrison’s two lectures to men:‘‘A powerful stereopticon was mounted in position at the back of the hall, and there was a large white canvas sheet covering nearly the full expanse of the stage within the proscenium . . . [as Harrison] diverged from more general remarks into more specific treatment of his subject, the lights were lowered and a succession of beautiful pictures began to appear upon the screen at his back, some of them views of notable places, or of choice statuary or paintings, and others being enlargements of anatomical charts illustrative of the lecture itself . . . the exhibition of pictures, which are the best of the kind that have ever been seen in Ashburton, formed a capital entertainment of itself.”

Audiences were entranced by images shown on 55 square metres of canvas of ‘‘Paris by day and illuminated at night”, ‘‘a thunderstorm in the Rockies with realistic effects” and ‘‘Vesuvius in eruption”.

The last, ‘‘immensely popular” as a subject for ‘‘the dissolving view technique”, had been in the lantern slide repertoire since the 1850s.

Paired and matched slides were used to illustrate the ‘‘Bay of Naples, smiling in the serenity of sunshine, with Vesuvius at rest lowering grandly in the distance . . . Clouds and thick darkness [then came] over the scene, and the volcano belche[d] forth its red fires and gloomy vapours”.

Spectators sitting safely in their local theatre or community hall were transfixed by the power of nature and the horror of the unexpected.

Crowds came to Anna Longshore Potts’s lectures partly because of the novelty of a woman doctor. Dressed in ‘‘charming gowns” and carrying a long rod that gave her ‘‘the appearance of a Sybil gone fly-fishing”, she pointed out ‘‘the ulcers on the drunkard’s throat, a picture we took great interest in, and other delicate pictures, together with some beautiful ones of art and travel which are projected by a handsome and powerful stereopticon”.

Whereas past itinerant health lecturers had used papier-mache or wax models to demonstrate anatomy and physiology, requiring an intimate venue, the stereopticon could illuminate the finer points of anatomy spectacularly on a large screen in vast theatres and opera houses.

Both Potts and Harrison used the stereopticon to democratise their medical learning, attract audiences and line their pocket books.

The travelling stereopticon created a new kind of theatrical experience in which a lecture was enhanced by spectacular visual display. Perhaps in a unique combination, Stanert’s slides threw light on both scenic splendours and bodily parts in order to enlighten and entertain.

The stereopticon’s illusions served to expand the mental landscapes of colonists’ worlds in expansive and unexpectedly intimate ways.


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