Peepshows and Magic Lanterns

Strange scenes and foreign cities, battles and beauties, starlit nights and sunny days. All could be seen in the miniature world of the peepshows.

Peepshows with pictures, stories and optical illusions were very popular in the 16th century. For the average man in the street they were a storehouse of information. People paid to peep into a box that contained either paintings or models. There were special effects such as day to night or perspective tricks. Visitors could learn about battles, wars and horror stories or about other towns, cities and countries. The operator told the stories that went with the peepshow. These performers were called Galantees or Savoyards. The magic lantern was a revolutionary invention in the pre-television days. For centuries lantern-shows were very popular. Travelling showmen performed them in the places where they stopped. They were like modern day slide projectors. They too could “trick” the audience with “moving” pictures and sudden appearances and disappearances. The slides were often used to tell stories. Special sets were painted onto glass plates which illustrated well known stories. Sometimes bible stories were told. Some lantern slides accompanied songs. They remained popular until the early 20th century.

A demonstration of the magic lantern.

Children enjoying a raree show. Most of them were illiterate. Thanks to this Pantoscope they could learn about geography, history and sciences.

A show box on an Italian market square.

The projectionist produces a picture of what could be looked upon as a foreshadowing of the house Alfred Hitchcock used in Psycho. Anyhow the spectators watch it with a certain restraint.

Ready for the show: an artist with a belly organ and a magic lantern on his back. The boy on the left looks like a junior road manager. Italian magic lantern-showmen often came from Savoia.

The Colossus of Rhodes and the Wall of Babel on ancient drawings.

The Colossus of Rhodes was a gigantic bronze statue measuring 32 metre. It represented the ancient Sun God. The Colossus of Rhodes was one of the seven Wonders of the World. The engraving is from the 18th century. The image was used in the optical boxes at the fairs. The Babylonian Walls also belonged to the seven Wonders of the World. Fairs all around Europe used these images. They were shown through magic lanterns. It was a way of teaching illiterates some culture, geography and history.