Magic lantern slide shows were very popular in the days before cinema and television. They were a mass-media alternative to (or sometimes part of) live theatre such as plays and the music hall and could show scenes that would have been impossible to present in any other way. For instance, audiences were aware of world-wide events from their newspapers and, through the magic lantern, could see pictures of them on the large screen.
Today’s slides are a good example of such ‘newsreel’. In the mid Victorian period, British explorers were searching for new lands (to expand our Empire) and quicker routes to reach existing ones. This was a time when parts of the world were still unknown, especially the northern and southern extremities and fortunes could be made by discovering new trading markets and routes.
In 1875, Sir George Nares left Portsmouth, England to attempt to reach the North Pole. His two ships, HMS Alert and HMS Discovery, were wooden, sailing ships. At times, they got stuck in the ice, the crews must have struggled with the low temperatures and they eventually abandoned the expedition because of sickness due to scurvy. Nares failed to reach the Pole but did succeed in mapping parts of Greenland that were previously unknown.
These four magic lantern slides are from a set of at least sixty slides on this topic. Photos were taken during the expedition but these are hand-tinted drawings, which were probably cheaper and quicker to produce, especially if this was a hot topic and there was some urgency to supply them to professional magic lantern showmen who, in turn, wanted to amaze their audiences with bang-up-to-date news footage.
The four slides have printed paper captions on them which say (from top to bottom) ….. HMS Alert aground, Kennedy Channel; HMS Alert November 5th, 1875; Travelling by sledge and Theatricals on board HMS Alert.
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