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Peter Benes
Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, Boston University

"A Dutchman Scating on ice in the midst of Summer”: Magic Lantern Entertainments for Children before 1830

The magic lantern, an early device to project life-size images on a wall or screen, was introduced into the American colonies in 1743 when Edmund Rising, a London optician, entertained spellbound adult audiences in Philadelphia and Boston with images of the Battle of Dettingen, naval engagements with Spanish and Turkish fleets, and Italian landscapes. Four years later, however, when two English puppetmasters entertained audiences in New York City, they ended their shows with a lantern demonstration specifically directed at children. Among the thirty images featured by Richard Brickell and Richard Mosely was an animated scene of a “Dutchman Scating on ice in the midst of Summer”—one of the first examples of juvenile themes in a lantern medium seen by American audiences.
Based on newspaper advertisements, broadsides, diaries, and a handful of surviving glass plates, this paper traces the “literature” of children’s themes in this elusive medium before 1830. It examines the origin of these themes in English and European folklore and its gradual evolution in America into a child’s pastime. Lantern exhibitions that historically had always shown a serious or educational side, gradually acquired a secondary, child-centered focus: animal parades, the “Merry Piper dancing a jig to his own dumb musick,” and clowning acts such as “Harlequin escaping out of a bottle.” In time, magic lantern projectors and transparencies became so ubiquitous and inexpensive they were simply introduced into American households as another child-oriented consumer item. It was a trend that dovetailed with the early nineteenth century availability of printed books for children, juvenile libraries, and manufactured children’s games.
The broader evolution of this genre is best seen in the context of studies of childhood by Philippe Aries, Karen Calvert, and John Demos. Two of these authors have suggested that “toys” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were originally made for an adult market. John Demos in turn has suggested that “the child becomes not just a mirror, not only the creature, but also the creator of culture and in this sense a dynamic force in his own right.” The magic lantern as a child’s toy in America addresses both concepts.

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