Labour and the Poor

Source: Unnamed lanternist, interviewed in Henry Mayhew, ‘Labour and the Poor’, Letter XXXIX, Morning Chronicle, 28 February 1850

Text: A very ingenious and intelligent man to whom I was referred, as the best in his trade, gave me the following account of magic lanterns. His parlour behind the shop – for he had risen to be a shopkeeper in some kinds of toys and other articles, known as the “fancy trade, was well furnished, and in a way that often distinguishes the better class of prosperous artisans. A fondness for paintings and for animals was manifested. On a sofa lay two very handsome King Charles’s spaniels. On a chair were a fine cat and kitten. Outside his parlour window was a pigeon colony, peopled with fine large birds, a cross between those known as a “carrier” and a “horseman.” Books, of no common class, were abundant enough, and his periodical was not wanting. He said:

“I have known the business of magic lantern making thirty-five years. It was then no better than the common galantee shows in the streets, Punch and Judy, or any peepshow or common thing. There was no science and no art about it. It went on so for some time – just grotesque things for children, as ‘Pull devil and pull baker.’ This is the old style, you see, but better done.” (He showed me one in which, to all appearance (for it was rather obscurely expressed), a cat was busy at the wash-tub, with handkerchiefs hanging on her tail to dry; Judy, with a glass in her hand, was in company with a nondescript sort of devil, smoking a pipe, and a horse was driving a man, who carried the horse’s panniers.) “Bluebeards were fashionable then – uncommon blue their beards were, to be sure; and Robin Hoods – and Robinson Crusoes with Fridays and the goats, and the parrot, and the man’s footmark on the sand – and Little Red Riding Hoods, as red as the Blue Beards were blue. I don’t remember Ali Babas and Forty Thieves, there were too many of the thieves for a magic lantern – too many characters; we couldn’t very well have managed forty thieves – it’s too many. There were things called comic changes’ in vogue at that period. As the glasses moved backwards and forwards, fitted into a small frame like that of a boy’s slate, a beggar was shown as if taking his hat off, and Jim Crow turning about and wheeling about, and a blacksmith hammering – moving his hammer. There were no theatrical scenes beyond Harlequins and Clowns. About thirty years ago the diagrams for astronomy were introduced. These were made to show the eclipses of the sun and moon, the different constellations, the planets with their satellites, the phases of the moon, the rotundity of the earth, and the comets with good long tails. What a tail 1811 had! and similar things that way. This I consider an important step in the improvement of my art. Next, moving diagrams were introduced. I really forget, or never knew, who first introduced those improvements. The opticians then had the trade to themselves, and prices were very high. The moving diagrams were so made that they showed the motion of the earth and its rotundity, by the course of a ship painted on the lantern – and the tides, the neap and spring, as influenced by the sun and moon. Then there was the earth going round the sun, and, as she passed along, the different phases were shown, day here and night there. Then there were the planets going round the sun, with their satellites going round them. How wonderful are the works of the Creator! The comets, too; that of 1811, however, with a famous tail, as he deserved. His regular course – if you call it regular – was shown. I saw him when a schoolboy in Wiltshire then. There has not been a comet worth calling a comet since. The zodiac made very pretty slides – twelve of them, each a sign. These things greatly advanced the art and the demand for magic lanterns increased, but not much for some years, until the dissolving views were introduced, about eighteen years ago, I think it was. But I should tell you that Dollond, before that, made improvements in the magic lantern; they called the new instruments the phantasmagoria. Mr. Henry, who conjured at the Adelphi Theatre some eighteen years ago, was one of the first – indeed I may say the first – who introduced dissolving views at a place of public amusement. Then these views were shown by the oil light only, so that the effect was not near so good as by gas, but even that created a great impression. From the period I date what I may call the popularity of magic lanterns. Henry used two lanterns for his views; but using them with oil, and not on so large a scale, they would be thought very poor things now. Then the Careys introduced the gas microscope, up in Bond-street. The gas microscope (the hydro-oxygen it’s sometimes called) is the magic lantern, and on the principle of the magic lantern, only better glazed, showing the water lions and other things in a drop of stagnant water. Thames water may do. I now introduce insects and butterflies’ wings in my lanterns – real insects and real wings of insects on the slides. I make such as fleas, bugs, pig-lice (an extraordinary thing, with claws like a crab, sir), and so up to butterflies – all between glasses, and air tight – they’ll last for ever if necessary. Here’s the sting, tongue, and wing of a bee. Here you see flowers. Those leaves of the fern are really beautiful – of course they are, for they are from the fern itself. This is one great improvement of the art, which I have given in a more simple form than used to be the fashion. You can magnify them to any size, and it’s still nature – no disproportion and no distortion. Butterflies may be made as big as the wall of this room, through one of my magic lanterns with microscope power attached – but the larger the object represented, the less the power of the light. Gas, in some degree, obviates that fault. No oil can be made to give a light like gas. After this the question arose as to introducing views with the lime light, but the paintings in the lanterns were too coarse, for the light brought them out in all their coarseness. Every defect was shown up, glaringly, you may say. That brought in better paintings – of course at a greater cost. The Polytechnic has brought the lime-light for this purpose to great perfection. For the oil-lights the paintings are bold, for the lime-light fine and delicate. Next the chromatrope was introduced, revolving stars chiefly – the hint being taken from Chinese fireworks. Mount Vesuvius was made to explode and such like. That’s the present state of the art in London. The trade is five or six fold what I once knew it. Landscapes, Fingal’s caves, cathedrals, sea views, are most popular now. In the landscapes we give the changes from summer to winter – from a bright sun in July to the snow seen actually falling in January. 1 make between 500 and 600 a year, say 550; 1 think I make one half of those made. The lowest price of a well-made lantern is 7s. 6d., and soon up to £20, dissolving and double lanterns. About a third of the lowest price are made, but people often go on from that to a superior article. I sold last year about 100 of the best of single lanterns, retailed at £10. Calculate a third at 7s. 6d., and 100 at £10, and the intermediate prices in – I think we may say – equal proportions – and you have the amount. Average the middle lot at 30s., suppose – that is £1,469 14s. I think that the other magic lanterns made, though they may be double my quantity, will not realize more, as so many lower-priced lanterns are made: so double the amount, and we have £2,939 8s for London-made magic lanterns. I think I can, and shall, introduce further improvements. There are slop magic lanterns; they are slops, made, I believe, but I am not sure, in French Flanders; and I believe more of them are sold than of our own. What is worse than slop art, sir? These slop lanterns are generally retailed at 1s. 6d. each, with 12 slides. The tin part is neatly made; but, altogether, it is sad rubbish. I have been told by persons who bought them – and I have been often told it – that they could make nothing of them. The only good that they can do is, that they may tempt people to buy better ones – which is something. The admission of foreign toys at a low rate of duty has not injured the magic lantern business, but has rather increased it.”

Comments: Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was a British journalist and social investigator. His series of ‘letters’ entitled ‘Labour and the Poor’, based on detailed interviews with people living and working in the streets of London, were published in 76 installments in the Morning Chronicle, between 19 October 1849 and 12 December 1850. Publication continued thereafter by Mayhew himself under the title London Labour and the London Poor, first published in volume form in 1851, with two further volumes that same year. A fourth volume followed in 1861. A galantee show refers to a small-time, touring lanternist. The Chromatrope was a form of magic lantern that showed kaleidoscopic patterns.

Links: Digitised copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)
Transcription at Victorian London

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