No television. No radio. No computers. So how did our Victorian and earlier ancestors fill their spare time?
The answer was usually to arrange their own entertainment, by singing and playing music for family and friends, or by holding their own picture shows – the way many families still do today by projecting their holiday slides onto wall mounted screens.
Long before cameras were invented, people would position glass slides featuring hand-painted images in front of a source of artificial light, such as candles and oil lamps, and using lenses and apertures to project a larger image onto a light coloured background.
Then when photography came about, slide shows would project mainly images of famous people and distant locations.
In time, artificial light was replaced by electric light bulbs in machines called “magic lanterns”. Unsurprisingly, the slides used in these magic lanterns came to be known as “magic lantern slides”, the name by which these early photographic collectibles are still known today.
A magic lantern slide is a bit like the photographic negatives many of us will remember from before the introduction of the digital camera, but while most negatives from the later 1900s were created on plastic, the magic lantern slide was usually preserved on glass.
Slides, in collectors’ terms, have been used since the 17th century, and were created in many different shapes and sizes, and used in numerous different styles of projector. But it’s the Victorian version of the magic lantern slide like those shown above that attracts most attention from collectors today and which was ultimately produced to a standard size to fit most projectors. There are exceptions to size, such as the image shown far right above which is wider than its counterparts. But generally speaking, most magic lantern slides measure just over three inches square and these are the type we will talk about now.
In the early days, magic lantern slides were produced depicting plants and birds and other wildlife and were used as teaching aids. Most such images were painted onto glass or by inserting pressed flowers and leaves, feathers and fur between plates of glass and binding the sheets of glass together at the edges.
From the middle 1800s, most magic lantern slides were created from photographs and, with some exceptions, these early photographic types remain the most popular and collectable today.
Other common depictions included scenes at exhibitions and industrial trade fairs, royalty and famous personages, men working in the fields and on trams and other forms of transport, churches and important public buildings, and more besides.
Magic lantern slides continued to be used until around the 1950s when transparencies were introduced which were not only smaller and lighter than their previous glass counterparts, but were also much less expensive to use and could more easily be converted into physical images.
Literally millions of magic lantern slides were produced and many remain in good shape today and can fetch good prices on eBay. Such as:
» Dismembered skeleton magic lantern slide hand painted. £103.90
» Nude bodybuilder. Vintage magic lantern slide 1910/1920s. £85.00
» Fantasmagoria Dismembered Magic Lantern Slide. £85.00
(Note: “Fantasmagoria” seems to be a recognised term among dealers and collectors of magic lantern slides, but when I researched the term online I found more frequent reference to “Phantasmagoria”, meaning this item may have been listed with a spelling mistake and therefore represented a good arbitrage deal for someone able to spot the error and resell the item with correct spelling later.)*
- Magic Lantern Slide Motor Vintage Classic Car Motoring. £83.99
- Four Magic Lantern Slides Irish Independence Inc. Dublin. £73.00
- Magic Lantern Slide Motor Vintage Classic Motorbike Car. £70.00
- Two Hampton Thames Photo Magic Lantern Slides. £65.89
- Kurt Schwitters 1924 ‘Merzbau’ Germany Glass Slide. £59.20
- Magic Lantern Slide Amritsar Hall Gate Sikh Punjab India. £52.00
- Trevithick Centenary 1901 Camborne England Antique Magic Lantern Slide. £43.00
- Magic Lantern Glass Slide Photo Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. £44.89
Magic lantern projectors themselves are popular sellers on eBay and can often be purchased alongside huge piles of magic lantern slides in offline auction salerooms. From personal experience, I know it’s entirely possible to buy a good magic lantern projector with a large collection of slides in some small auction saleroom and then sell the projector itself on eBay and make back the price you paid for the entire bundle. When that happens, you’re into quick-and-easy pure profit when it comes to selling the slides separately or rebundled in smaller lots on eBay.
*Phantasmagoria: Describes images of a macabre or frightening nature, such as bodies and skeletons. (Source)
Important: I’ve said it so many times already, but other people’s spelling mistakes can convert to quick-and-easy profit on eBay for savvy sellers like you and me. That’s because all searches on eBay respond to words and phrases keyed into eBay search boxes, so if potential buyers misspell words describing whatever they’d like to buy, they’ll end up thinking no one is selling those items. On the other side of the coin, if a seller misspells words potential buyers key into search engines, he’s unlikely to find buyers and his products will sell below market value, if they sell at all. So two things are important for you and me here:
- We need to spell words correctly in our own listings.
- We need to spend time looking for spelling mistakes made by other sellers which render their listings oblivious to potential buyers, except for people like you and me. Then we buy those items and resell them on eBay – with essential search keywords spelled correctly in our listings.
Tip: Some words are commonly misspelled and it can be a good idea to include correct and incorrect spellings in your eBay listings, but only if space permits. That way, your listings will respond to all searches for similar products on eBay, by people keying in the correct spelling, and others who don’t. Examples: stationery / stationary, xylophone / zylophone.
Determining the value of magic lantern slides
Some images on magic lantern slides were produced in huge quantities and many remain in good condition today and are generally worth very little unless a seller finds two or more people wanting the same item and willing to bid a high price for it on eBay.
Generally speaking, an image of a building or park, or beach or mountain that looks pretty much the same today as it did 100 years ago will be worth very little. Much the same goes for slides showing images of famous sculptures and paintings, for example, and other subjects that could be photographed by virtually anyone at any time.
However, topographical images – generally the best sellers among magic slide collectors on eBay – with some important event taking place can be worth hundreds of pounds, and sometimes more if two or several people bid for the slide on eBay. As an example, a few weeks ago I bought a box of 200 magic lantern slides featuring overall mundane topographical views in the south of England, notably Bristol and surrounding areas. I auctioned them on eBay, starting price 99p, and most sold for between 99p and £10 each. Three magic lantern slides, however, featuring politician Lloyd George addressing a meeting of suffragettes in Bristol, sold at £50, £75 and £100.
Here’s the most important question to ask to determine rarity and value of a photographic topographical view on magic lantern slide, postcard, stereoview, cabinet portrait or any other photographic presentation…
How long could this particular view have been photographed?
For an empty park or building without vehicles or people in the image, the answer might be thousands of times. And that means the view almost certainly was photographed thousands of times and is practically worthless today.
If the answer to how often the image could be photographed is “Just for a few minutes… because the subject only visited Bristol once and spoke for just a few minutes”, or the image shows a fire taking place which subsequently destroyed the building and shows firefighters trying to suppress the flames and rescue people inside. In both cases, the scene attracted just one or two photographers and the image is likely to be rare… and potentially very valuable!
Other signs that a slide might be valuable include:
» Age. Older slides, from early Victorian times, tend to be more collectable and fetch higher prices than others created in the middle 1900s. Hence the reason a slide showing a Victorian woman in full riding outfit, with a wide dress for riding side saddle and a tall top hat in her hand, fetched more than £200 on eBay some months back. That’s because photography was generally available to only the very rich in early Victorian times, unlike today when almost everyone has a camera. So a slide showing a lady in riding gear in the 1990s might be worth little or nothing – unless the person is famous, of course. Which brings us to another reason one slide might fetch hundreds of pounds and another be worthless.
» Famous subject or named location. A slide depicting a recognised notable person or named topographical area will almost always be worth much more than a similar unidentified person or view. That’s because the majority of buyers for magic lantern slides favour recognisable subjects and identified locations. In fact, the majority of people buying magic lantern slides on eBay are not slide enthusiasts as such, but collectors of topographical and subject views.
The location or subject of most slides can be determined from printing or writing on tiny strips of paper around the edges or sides.
If there is no such writing or printing, try identifying the subject or location by looking for giveaway signs on the image, such as a shop with town or city of origin painted above the door, or people holding banners mentioning some specific event such as a suffragettes meeting.
Alternatively, if there’s a publisher’s name somewhere on the slide, maybe a design number too, try keying the details into Google.com’s image search feature to see if a similar view or even an identical slide has been uploaded online which may give a guide to location, subject, and possibly value.
» Publisher. Some publishers are more collectable than others, making it a good idea for resellers to list publishers of recently highest priced magic lantern slides selling on eBay. Take your list on buying expeditions and you’ll find some magic lantern slides going cheap, because they don’t depict obvious topographical areas or famous named personalities, and for that reason most potential bidders consider them worthless rubbish. And that means you could be the sole bidder in your local auction house every time a collectable photographer’s name appears on an other- wise mundane looking slide.
My research today failed to spot any notable trends in publisher, so this really is something you’ll have to research for yourself every time you spot a big bundle of magic lantern slides selling locally. Make a note of publishers’ names in your notebook, then head home and key the details into eBay’s Advanced Search box to see if similar items have sold recently, and at what price.
For a useful guide to publishers click here
Buying and selling tips
» Magic lantern slides represent one of those high profit products we’re often talking about here in eBay Confidential, the kind of things that can frequently be purchased in bulk in provincial auction salerooms when a collector dies or gives up collecting. And like most other mainstream collecting interests, those collections often sell way below their true market value in salerooms which few specialist dealers and collectors visit. So they can sell at low, low prices, sometimes costing less for 200 or 300 slides than you might receive on eBay for just a handful of those items sold separately.
» On eBay UK, early magic lantern slides – up to 1910 tend to be most collectable – are listed under: Collectables > Photographic Images > Antique (Pre-1940) > Slides.
» eBay is probably the world’s most popular hunting ground for magic lantern slide collectors and if a slide is valuable eBay is almost certainly the best place to sell it for the highest profits. Which means, of course, you can list your slides with a low starting price, as well as minimising your eBay listing fees, and you can expect market forces to determine the value of your items.
This is how I maximise my profits when I purchase a big bundle of magic lantern slides which I lack time or inclination to value:
» Take out named subjects and topographical areas. List these first on eBay, starting price 99p. Any that don’t list should be relisted.
» Slides that remain unsold after a second listing can safely be listed individually in your eBay Shop, priced £19.99 with a Best Offer button attached.
» During the first few weeks, accept offers over £16.99 and reject all others.
» After two months, accept offers of £9.99 and over.
» After six months in your eBay Shop, just take what you can get for them, purely because if no one has bought these slides by that time, they’re probably not worth very much anyway.
» After a year with no serious offers, remove the listings and bundle unsold slides to sell on eBay or in some local auction house. Do not set a reserve and accept whatever someone offers for them. If they don’t sell, either keep them another few years and they may grow in value or donate them to your local charity shop and let someone else find a home for them!
If time allows, list the remainder of your less interesting slides separately on eBay, starting at 99p and, like before, let the market find its value. If they don’t sell, it’s not usually worth listing them in your eBay Shop, and more practical to bundle them back into their original boxes and sell them at the auction house from which they first came.
How to scan magic lantern slides for your eBay listings or create a digital image to convert into print
When you look at a magic lantern slide placed flat on a table or desk, all you’ll usually see is a piece of dark glass with a few odd splashes of grey which rarely look anything like photographs or hand painted images.
It’s only when held against the light that a magic lantern slide will reveal its image.
So it follows, by photographing a magic lantern slide lying flat on a table or desk, or scanning a slide on a flatbed scanner with cover closed, you’ll end up with images that won’t attract buyers on eBay.
Compared, for instance, to where you photograph the slide while someone holds it up to the sunlight, or where a source of light is directed onto the slide lying on a flatbed scanner with the cover wide open.
Here’s how the experts advise turning magic lantern slides into larger, high definition images:
“Acquire a flatbed scanner with a transparency lid. These are not too expensive (say £200+ for a new one) and can produce superb results.” The writer recommends using an Epson Perfection scanner, model 4870, to scan 3.25” slides at 2400 dots per inch, which he says gives excellent results at 20 inches by 30 inches.
For more information about scanning magic lantern slides for reselling or for converting to print format click here.
Which brings us to…
… two of my own favourite techniques for making fast cash from magic lantern slides:
» Make your own prints from antique magic lantern slides. Sell them on eBay, Amazon, Etsy, and from your own websites and blogs. Preferably create prints from images fetching the highest prices on eBay and avoid making prints of magic lantern slide images that don’t sell for their own sake. The reason is, if the slide doesn’t sell, it’s unlikely the print will sell either!
People already reproducing vintage images online include: eBayer, k-g.pa – Shop Name: The Keasbury-Gordon Photo Archive
• Buy slides at locations where collectors are rare and expert buyers rarer still, such as in small town auction salerooms and at rural boot sales and flea markets. Then resell individual magic lantern slides or collections where experts with big budgets congregate, in major auction houses, for example, especially at specialist sales of cameras, photographic equipment and accessories.
For starters try Bonhams, who have recently had great success selling sets of magic lantern slides at decent high prices, making it possible for our readers to purchase slides really cheap from provincial flea markets and auction salerooms and to resell those items for much higher prices through major international auction companies.
Get more information about recent sales of slides at Bonhams.
Magic lantern slides are one of my own favourite collectibles for selling on eBay and through specialist auction sales.
They are difficult to scan – unless you follow my above advice – they’re hard to pack, and they’re very easily broken!
But! And that is wonderful news because having to put a little effort into buying and selling magic lantern slides is the very reason many people don’t bother! And that leaves lots of scope for really high profits for entrepreneurial folks like you and me!
Provides a long list of websites providing a wealth of information about most types of magic lantern slides of all different types and eras.
A wonderful website providing information about most types of magic lantern slides and providing stunning images.
Lots of information about magic lantern slides, including a comprehensive glossary of common and uncommon terms to help you buy and sell your acquisitions with confidence.
That’s where I learned, for example, that Bamforth’s of Holmfirth in Yorkshire, well known for producing millions of postcards, were also manufacturers of the “Life Model” series of magic lantern slides.
Bamforth is one of the most collectable publishers of early and more recent items and anything with their name printed on the slide can fetch a premium on eBay. Make a note of the name in your notebook.
The Magic Lantern Society’s website is also where I learned the name of two other publishers
whose slides often fetch high prices on eBay, being:
» Graystone Bird – based in Bath and renowned for creating landscapes.
» GWW – George Washington Wilson, based in Aberdeen, also involved in production of landscape views.
Learn more about makers and various types of lantern slides, also details of little-known and incredibly rare slides that might be lurking among more common magic lantern slides in your local auction saleroom. The place to look is: http://www.magiclantern.org.uk/alphabet.htm
This article first appeared on Auction Genie. Read more and comment here