Projecting History: Lantern Slides at the Pennsylvania State Archives

Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.
Lantern slides from the collection of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Lantern slides from the collection of the Pennsylvania State Archives.


Before digital projectors and PowerPoint, before the carousel slide or 35mm film strips, and before the overhead, there was the lantern slide. A simple method of projecting images onto a large space, lantern slides were a technological marvel that revolutionized home entertainment, education and photography in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Lantern slides, often called “magic lantern slides,” are small 3-by-4-inch glass squares covered in silver gelatin emulsion and exposed to a negative and processed (similar to photographic film) to create a positive transparent image that can be projected onto a large screen with incredible detail. Glass lantern slides could be made from any photograph or could be drawn by hand. They were often painted or tinted to add color.

Lantern slides became commonplace in the United States in the late 1800s as some of the first “visual aids” available to illustrate lectures, school lessons, and demonstrations of all kinds. In Pennsylvania, popular speakers like Joseph Rothrock (1839–1922) and J. Horace McFarland (1859–1948) made their own personalized lantern slides to accompany lecture series they gave throughout the state.

Commercial firms manufactured sets of lantern slides for entertainment and educational use. The largest of these corporations was the Keystone View Co., founded in Meadville, Crawford County, in 1892 by B.L. Singley (1864–1938). By the early 20th century the company had a library of more than 20,000 images sold worldwide.

“One of the cardinal traits of human nature is a great desire for visual pleasures,” one reporter noted in 1904 to explain why Keystone’s lantern slides were so popular. “Every individual finds his greatest pleasure in things which delight the eye.” A 1928 Keystone advertisement claimed lantern slides “are the teacher’s greatest help in presenting clearly new and difficult subjects.”

Lantern slides were ubiquitous in early-20th-century Pennsylvania classrooms and lecture halls, thanks in part to the work of the Keystone View Co., but also because of the efforts of the Pennsylvania State Library. Under State Librarian Thomas Lynch Montgomery (1903–21), the library began collecting thousands of lantern slides and loaned them out like books. The library bought many slides from commercial firms like the Keystone View Co., and librarians drew and colored many more by hand.

WPA workers process lantern slides for loans around Pennsylvania, July 1938. Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-12

WPA workers process lantern slides for loans around Pennsylvania, July 1938.
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-12

The State Library’s lantern slide collection depicted topics like art and architecture, geography, history, literature, math and science, the natural world, and music. By 1913 the library’s lantern slide collection numbered more than 16,000 and had been circulated more than 50,000 times to schools, libraries, churches, fraternal organizations and study clubs.

Inspired in part by efforts to establish free local libraries and make costly educational materials more available across the state, the State Library’s lantern slide program only required educators to pay a small fee to ship slides and projectors from Harrisburg. In 1917 the State Library reported, “The demand for lantern slides is well sustained and the many letters of appreciation that are received from borrowers indicate that it will be some years yet before the lantern slide is superseded by the moving picture.” After the library sent slides to several Blair County schools that same year, an enthusiastic teacher wrote, “In no other way would our boys and girls gather up so much geographical and historical material that would be firmly fixed upon the mind.”

The State Library’s lantern slide collection, which had swelled to more than 50,000 slides at its peak, ended in the 1960s, as film and projector technology became more affordable. Thankfully, however, this incredible collection is still preserved today.

Currently, you can find the State Library’s lantern slide collection available for viewing at the Pennsylvania State Archives, where they have been carefully stored for many decades. A team of five archivists are currently relabeling and reboxing the slides to protect them when they move to the new State Archives building. The archivists, armed with magnifying glasses, pencils and archival sleeves, are ensuring that the remaining 47,000 slides are properly labeled, organized and securely housed. Slides that were damaged during library loans decades ago are also being identified and specially housed to prevent further harm. It is delicate work, all done by hand, just as it was a century ago.

The State Library’s lantern slide collection contains a little bit of everything and is “just as relevant now as it was then,” one archivist noted. Some of the best-preserved slides illustrate topics important to Pennsylvanians in the early 1900s, like conservation, industrialization and education. Others illustrate recent events of the early 20th century, such as the Spanish–American War and the City Beautiful Movement, that impacted Pennsylvania communities. Altogether, the lantern slide collection opens a colorful and vibrant window to the state 100 years ago and provides an intimate glimpse into how Pennsylvanians learned about the world and significant topics of the day.

The State Library’s lantern slide collection can be found in the Pennsylvania State Archives in Record Group 22: Records of the Department of Education. Additionally, many more lantern slides can be found throughout the State Archives photo collections, including notably Record Group 1: Records of the Department of Agriculture; Manuscript Group 43: Mira Lloyd Dock Papers; Manuscript Group 85: J. Horace McFarland Papers; Manuscript Group 218: Photograph Collections; and Manuscript Group 263: George A. Richardson Papers.


Tyler Stump is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.