Street life magic lantern slides

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Today’s photographs are from a set of fifty magic lantern slides made in the 1890s called ‘Street Life’. You could purchase the set with a printed script or hire it instead, which is interesting in itself. Long before the video and games industries (re)invented the concept of hiring software as an alternative to buying it (do video rental shops still exist?), Victorians could order a set of heavy, fragile, glass lantern slides from a catalogue, have them delivered by post, use them for a show or lecture, then return them. I would imagine that the income from charges for broken returns was a good little earner. As well as mail-order, the concept of ‘added value’ was around as well, as black and white sets were about half the price of hand-tinted ones.

This very rare set of slides is a wonderful record of Victorian normality. The reality programmes that currently fill our TV schedules don’t show ordinary people working in the office or delivering our post (although there’s probably someone pitching that idea at this very moment), they show more extreme situations. However, these one hundred and twenty year old slides show ordinary people going about their everyday business. So why would a magic lantern slide manufacturer think that audiences would be interested in the people that they could see on every high street?

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The answer is in the script. It provides commentary on each slide but often in a sneering, ‘look at these pathetic low-life’s’ way. It’s also xenophobic, particularly when describing Italian and German street musicians. So, I think this lantern lecture was probably aimed at middle class audiences and intended to mock the working class. Are our ‘problem relationships’ and ‘people living on benefits’ programmes a modern equivalent?

Putting aside its original purpose, these images now form an important record of street traders and entertainers in Victorian Britain. The photographs were taken in Bradford in Yorkshire, where the slide manufacturer, Riley Brothers, was based and some of the locations are still recognisable. One of my booklets reproduces this set of slides (not in colour) and its script.

From top to bottom, the images are a chimney sweep, oyster seller and milk delivery boy.

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