Libbey Slide Collection
In 1928, Clark University was given the library of Dr. William Libbey, Professor of Physical Geography and Director of the Museum of Geology and Archeology at Princeton University. Included in the gift was a collection of 14,000 lantern slides dating between 1860-1910.
A precursor to modern cardboard or plastic mounted slides, a lantern slide consists of two glass plates approximately three inches square. One plate is coated with an emulsion, which when exposed to light, captures an image. The second glass plate is placed over the first to protect the emulsion. A cutout border, usually of black paper, is placed between the glass plates to act as a frame for the picture. The glass plates are sealed together with black tape. The projector used to illuminate the slides was called a "magic lantern"--hence the term "lantern slides."
Although magic lanterns were used to project transparent drawings before 1839, it was not until 1850 that glass photographic slides were made in the United States. They became a common form of home entertainment, reaching their highest level of popularity by 1900, although they continued to be widespread until 35mm film and cameras became readily available in the late 1920's to the mid-1930's. Generally, lantern slides were black-and-white but they could be hand-tinted with transparent oils. Lantern slides were often commercially produced and typically sold by opticians, who purchased the rights to the photographs, reproduced them as lantern slides, and sold them either singly or in sets. Descriptive booklets were often included with the sets. Many of the pioneers of photography had their photographs reproduced in this fashion.
Dr. Libbey's collection consists of both commercial sets as well as his personal original photographs. He had become interested in photography and travel while an undergraduate at Princeton University. In 1877, he joined a Princeton Scientific Expedition to Utah and in 1878 was the photographer on an expedition to view a solar eclipse near Denver, Colorado. In 1886, he accompanied Lieutenant Schwatka on a expedition organized by the New York Times to climb Mt. St. Elias in Alaska. At Yakutat Bay, the party stopped to trade with the Yakutat Indians for prize examples of their art. Apparently some of Libbey's photographs of the Yakutat Indians were later made into commercial lantern slides. The originals, however, are among those in the Alaskan series in Clark's Libbey Collection. In 1894 and 1899, he traveled to Greenland with the Peary Expeditions; to Jordan in 1902, about which Libbey co-authored his most famous publication, The Jordan Valley and Petra; and to Yellowstone Park in 1908.
The collection includes one hundred series of slides, each dealing with a specific topic, state, or a country. They represent a remarkable cross section of the geography and peoples of many parts of the globe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even the mass-produced commercial sets are valuable as visual records of vanished or profoundly altered cultures, landscapes, and architecture.
At present there are approximately 20,000 glass lantern slides housed in the Map Library. In addition to the 14,000 from the personal collection of Dr. Libbey, 6,000 more were acquired in 1985 from Clark's Graduate School of Geography.