Category Archives: Pre-cinema optical devices

A Portable Phenakistoscope Theater


One of the problems with the original phenakistoscope, pictured above as it was invented around 1833, was that you needed to provide your own mirror. Looking through the slots in the circular print while it turned, a moving image appeared like magic in the reflection. Unfortunately, many 19th-century rooms (similar to our classrooms) were completely lacking in mirrors.

Within a few years, this toy evolved into the zoetrope and then the praxinoscope, devices that were all-inclusive moving image suppliers. Émile Reynaud further designed a portable praxinoscope theater [on the left] around 1879, which included all the parts needed to have a mini motion picture theater in your home.

Not to be left behind, someone also developed a portable phenakistoscope theater, complete with the circular prints, the turning handle, and the mirror. Most customers had already moved on to more elaborate devices and this model never caught on, making it rare in pre-cinema collections. Happily, we now have an example of this optical theater in the Graphic Arts Collection. Take a look.

Thanks to Nicholas Gallop who made this thumbnail gif

Optical games with letters

Detail from below

The Alphabet. The Alphabet in Capitals. The Lord’s Prayer. May his efforts to please his kind patrons succeed... (London: W. Snow [prob. circa 1815]). Hand colored steel engraved card, 14 x 10.5 cm. Graphic Arts Collection Recap 103360002
Detail from below.



This fun piece of ephemera offers three puzzles on one printed card, each with an optical trick. Published by W. Snow in Theobalds Road, London, the card showcases two alphabets written in the shape of monograms and a micrographic script with Lord’s Prayer.

W. Snow might refer to William Higgin Snow, publisher of another optical trick: A map of the country ten miles round London, printed around 1815 on a card 15 x 12 cm, the same as our optical card.

Such printed games were popular throughout the 19th century. A second copy of Snow’s card can be found in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library along with dozens of other examples of the Lord’s Prayer or other texts “written in the compass of a silver penny.”

Here’s Two ALPHABETS rare;
With our blessed LORDS PRAYER;
‘Graven neat, Sirs, to please,
With precision and care.

While the ARTIST relies
On the strength of your eyes
And the help of kind Judgement
To AID his supplies

May his efforts to please his kind PATRONS succeed
And He’ll Emulous prove and feel grateful indeed.


Can you find all the letters of the alphabet?
X and Z might be the most difficult, easier in capitals below.

Phenakistoscope, the 19th-century gif


One of several scientists working on optical devices in the early 19th century was Simon Ritter von Stampfer (1792-1790)), inventor of the stroboscopic disk, an early version of the phenakistoscope. He received a patent in 1833, began production, and published an account with Mathias Trentsensky. The first series of commercial disks sold out immediately. His book is available full-text online here: Ritter von Stampfer (1792-1790)), Die stroboscopischen Scheiben; oder, Optischen Zauberscheiben. Deren Theorie und wissenschaftliche Anwendung (Wien: Trentsensky & Vieweg, 1833).


Today, examples of the phenakistoscope are available in the graphic arts collection at Princeton and throughout the internet, as seen below in google image. Here are a few to enjoy.

In the 20th century, Magic Mirror Movies were a variation of the phenakistoscope, made for your 33 1/3 record player:

Pre-Digital Humanities

Checking out Spooner’s protean views and other ‘hold-to-light’ prints


Another way to appreciate protean views is by using a Polyorama Panoptique, popular from the 1820s through to the 1850s (and today). The portable, collapsible viewer was invented by Pierre Seguin, often given away as a souvenir during popular events or exhibitions. It is a miniature version of the megalethoscope.


John Ayston Paris, a London physician, is often credited with 19th century ‘persistence of vision’ devices. Many of the students made their own.

A portrait of Jules Verne

The Neo-Lucida is much easier to use than the original 19th-century device patented by Sir William Hyde Wollaston. That’s not just because it was invented by a Princeton graduate.


Macbeth lantern slides

A recent photo-reproduction request for the Macbeth slides within The Wheeler collection of lantern slides (formerly held by the Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum, 412 Low Library, Columbia University), led to the discovery that many had turned pink.

Regardless, there are some wonderful photographs and prints of Shakespeare productions in the 19th century. The collection includes 19 boxes of slides, together with 3 boxes of ring-bound 3×5 card sets, plus six other related items (stored in box 19).

Access is provided by a box list [see below] and a list in numeric order giving a brief description of each numbered slide. There is also the ring-bound card sets, grouped by presentation such as ‘Belgian Children’s Theatre’.

Contents of boxes

Listing by Wheeler number

Many Wheeler slide sets are productions of William Shakespeare, Macbeth highlighted here. For details on the Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum, see the records of the Museum (1910-1971) held by the Archives of Columbia University. We call it the ‘Wheeler Slide Collection,’ probably because these slides were made by the New York firm DeWitt C. Wheeler.


From Columbia’s website: “Brander Matthews (1852-1929). Appointed to the Columbia College faculty in 1892, Matthews began collecting theater-related memorabilia in 1911, convinced that the only way to learn about drama was through first-hand acquaintance with artifacts, images, and texts of the theatrical past.

Matthews then donated his own collection of theatrical memorabilia to the University to support the burgeoning study of world-wide theater history. He commissioned stage models representing historical periods, collected the scripts and theatrical designs of his contemporaries, gathered more than 30,000 images of actors and entertainers, and purchased masks and puppets from dealers and performers all over the world.

Thanks to a generous endowment, additions to the collection were made for decades after Matthews died in 1929. The Dramatic Museum was housed in Low Library at Columbia until it was closed in 1971; since then the collection has been split between various archival repositories at Columbia University.”

To The Moon

*play this full screen

In case you missed “To The Moon” last summer 2019 at the Museum of Natural History, you have a brief opportunity to catch it as part of the Under the Radar festival this month. Created by Laurie Anderson, Visiting Lecturer in the Princeton Atelier, and Hsin-Chien Huang, the virtual reality experience flies you through constellations built from molecular equations and alphabets forming DNA skeletons that merge science, literature, and graphic art. Commissioned by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark; The National Culture and Arts Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan; and National Taiwan Normal University, it is 15 minutes of lunar phantasmagoria. Unlike our pre-cinema collection of optical devices, this might be considered post-cinema.

The theater cautions: This production is not recommended for people with serious medical conditions including heart ailments. Pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone who risks serious injury from falling and people with epilepsy, or who are prone to seizures, dizziness, vertigo, fainting or motion sickness are not encouraged to participate in this production. As sensitivities vary from person to person, if you have specific questions regarding content, please call us at 212.967.7555.

Together with Arto Lindsay, Anderson has been teaching ATL 499, Spatial Sound, in which students “explore wave field synthesis including the dynamics of short stories, parades, suspended grammar, psychic states, animal consciousness, and depth of field in sound and film. Special attention will be paid to experimental forms of sound installation, use of different spatial techniques in live concerts, and spatial theater.” Final projects were presented on Friday, January 10, at Princeton University.

Loew’s Jersey “Wonder” Theater


The Loew’s Jersey opened on September 28, 1929, as the fourth of the five Loew’s Wonder Theaters, just two weeks after the Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx and the Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn. All five would have opened earlier but in October 1927, the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was released and all the Wonder theaters under construction had to be refitted for sound.

Meant to be a movie palace with “opulence unbound,” in fact the gilding throughout the lobby was actually painted aluminum and the marble columns are scagliola, a technique for producing faux marble. So much for movie magic.

The exterior has a muted terra cotta façade and standard marquee but at one time, the tower’s Saint George and the dragon was animated so that, when the clock chimed every fifteen minutes, red bulbs in the dragon’s mouth would light up and Saint George would lunge at the dragon.

According to the New York Times, “Reports of the theater opening describe an eight-foot, 150-year-old French Buhl clock, Dresden porcelain vases from the Vanderbilt mansion, bronze statues from France, crimson curtains embroidered with gold griffins and a turquoise-tiled Carrera marble fountain filled with goldfish.” Creating even more of a spectacle, guests were serenaded by live piano music or a string quartet coming from the musicians’ salon, the gallery above the entrance.”

The interior of Loew’s Jersey has appeared in several films, including Last Days of Disco and just this year Apple TV’s Dickinson, season 2, used the theater as a 19th-century opera house.


Located across from the PATH station in Journal Square, the theater was closed in 1987 and the building was slated for demolition when local residents banded together to save the historic theater. They collected 10,000 petition signatures and attended countless City Council meetings, and finally, in 1993, the city agreed to buy the theater for $325,000 and allow the newly formed Friends of the Loew’s to operate there as a nonprofit arts and entertainment center and embark on a restoration effort.

This fireplace is in the men’s room off the balcony. The Lady’s room has a separate lounge area and a third room for checking your make up.


 Read about all five wonder theaters:


Netherlandish Perspective Views


The Graphic Arts Collection is the fortunate new owner of eight 18th-century optical views from The Netherlands, meant to be viewed with a zograscope. These are early hand colored etchings on heavy wove paper without any title printed either above or below the view. Thanks to our donor Bruce Willsie, Class of 1986. Several have a hand-written note taped to the back and others can be identified online. Any additional information would be appreciated.

Can you figure out the reason for the second story hut?

These are not “hold to light” prints, there are no holes or treatment to light up the windows or stars when placed in front of a light. It is possible they were meant to be but never finished, just as the titles have not been printed.

Vue du coté du Port pres la Tour Abbaije à Middelbourg


Gezicht van de Oude Waalse-Kerk (Face of the Old Walloon Church), Amsterdam, ca. 1783.

Lectures for the Magic Lantern and Pleasant Readings for Leisure Hours by The Wizard (title copyrighted)

Lectures for the Magic Lantern and Pleasant Readings for Leisure Hours by The Wizard [cover title] (London: Millikin & Lawley, [1874?]). Graphic Arts Collection Q-000611

What do you say while presenting magic lantern slides? Do not improvise. The text has been written out in full thanks to booklets like this scarce, later edition of scripts for all types of Victorian magic lantern shows. Also included are instructions to how fast or slow to move each slide, and an indication of how to handle Dissolving View Lanterns, Comic Slipping Slides, Lever Action Slides, along with equipment such as the Nightingale Whistle and various Musical Boxes.


The author, known as The Wizard, promises that “the monotony of Evenings at Home is charmed away” through the amusement and instruction of the magic lantern. The seal of approval is made in a report that the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) ordered a magic lantern, lantern slides, and a copy of lectures from Millikin & Lawley, for his children at Sandringham. The report states that he “was much amused at the comical character of the various laughable slides” (p. 26).

Our volume is missing the complimentary blank slide that is to be used for your personal greeting, allowing you to project a unique thank you to your audience.

Ye olde London streete

Ye olde London streete ([London], 1884). Peepshow [also called a tunnel book] with 6 watercolored panels. Graphic Arts Collection GAX 2019 in process

Between the Cotsen Children’s Library and the Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton holds a large collection of European and American tunnel books. Here is one of our newest acquisitions.


In this example, the panels are attached to each other with cloth sides, making the whole easily foldable, like an accordion book. It offers a view of an imaginary old London street that was reconstructed at the International Health Exhibition of 1884. The street was made out of real houses, some four or five stories high and was built to give a contrast to the modern sanitary advancements. It proved to be the most visited exhibition.

The artist’s initials “G.C.S.” are struck through in pencil, followed by what we presume to be the owner’s name: Mary Dorothea. The piece is also signed at the back with the initials G.C.S. and manuscript note on the scenery, “Taken from the street in old London shown at the Health Exhibition 1884”.

In 1884 London hosted an International Health Exhibition under the patronage of Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, and directed by an Executive Council. The Exhibition was held in South Kensington, on a site between the Royal Albert Hall and the newly-opened Natural History Museum, on land which is now occupied by Imperial College of Science and Technology. Four million people visited the Exhibition between 8 May and 30 October 1884 (

Here are a few more of our peepshows:
1. [Milan Cathedral peepshow]
[S.l. : s.n., 18–]. Graphic Arts Collection » 2007-0615N
2. Optique no. 12 : les Boulevards.
[Paris? : s.n., 18–]. Graphic Arts Collection » 2007-0609N
3. Optique no. 8 : le Parc de Versailles.
[Paris? : s.n., 18–]. Graphic Arts Collection » 2013-0443N
4. [Reims Cathedral peepshow]
[S.l. : s.n., 18–]. Graphic Arts Collection » 2007-1260N
5. Teleorama.
[S.l. : s.n., 18–]. Graphic Arts Collection » 2007-0688N
6. A View of the tunnel under the Thames, as it will appear when completed: the carriage ways will be circular : foot passengers will descent the shafts by stairs : dimensions of the tunnel, length fr…
[London] : Pubd. … by M. Gouyn, August. 1, 1829. Rare Books » 2010-0864N
7. Thames tunnel.
[London? : s.n., 184-?]. Rare Books » Oversize 2007-0169Q
8. A Brief account of the Thames Tunnel.
[London] : Azulay, Thames Tunnel, [1851?]. Rare Books » 2011-0054N
9. Ye Olde London streete.
[London : s.n., 1884?]. Graphic Arts Collection » N-001924
10. Grand théâtre en actions.
Paris : A. Capendu, éditeur, [189-?]. Cotsen Children’s Library » Moveables 19Q 44369
11. [Noah’s Ark] / devised by Jack S. Chambers.
[London : Werner Laurie, (not after 1950)]. Cotsen Children’s Library » Moveables 14964
12. Fünfhundert Jahre Buchdruckerkunst, 1440-1940 : über hundert Jahre Bauersche Giesserei, Frankfurt a.M., gegründet 1837.
[Frankfurt am Main : Bauersche Giesserei, 1940]. Cotsen Children’s Library » Moveables 30196 and Graphic Arts Collection » 2007-0617N
13. Tony Sarg’s treasure book : Rip Van Winkle, Alice in Wonderland, and Treasure Island.
[New York : B.F. Jay], c 1942. South East (CTSN) » Toys 11990