About Lantern Slides and the Brittingham Family Collection

Mary Brittingham (left) and another woman on horseback in Glacier National Park. A mountain peak is visible in the background. 1913. #WI.bls0903.bib

Mary Brittingham (left) and another woman on horseback in Glacier National Park. A mountain peak is visible in the background. 1913. #WI.bls0903.bib

The images in this online exhibit were taken from the Brittingham Lantern Slide Collection, which has been digitized and is available through the UW’s Digital Collections. The collection consists of the personal and travel photographs of the Brittinghams from the years 1897-1922. These images capture the private lives of a wealthy family at the turn of the century, and document their travels to 22 states and 32 countries.

This collection is a family album of sorts, and subjects range widely from informal pictures of children at play to detailed interior shots of the Brittingham homes. Scenic landscapes, cityscapes, and street scenes from around the world are in abundance. The Brittinghams traveled from the Grand Canyon to Eastern Asia, and everywhere captured particulars of dress, architecture, and locomotion.

The photographs in the collection coincide exactly with the sudden, worldwide proliferation of amateur photographers, and the Brittinghams were certainly poised to play that role: they had both money and free time in abundance. During the late 1800s photography was radically simplified by the development of dry gelatin plates.

These plates eliminated the need to have a darkroom immediately available when the picture was taken, enabling portability. They were also able be produced in advance and, therefore, mass-produced. Dry gelatin plates were 6o times more sensitive than wet collodion plates, and the resulting speed granted a freedom from the tripod. The handheld camera was a natural offspring of these circumstances, and the stage was set for the widespread amateur photography craze.

A man stands on a ledge overlooking the city of Bethlehem. The original photograph was most likely taken by a professional and purchased by the Brittinghams.  #WI.bls0422

A man stands on a ledge overlooking the city of Bethlehem. The original photograph was most likely taken by a professional and purchased by the Brittinghams. #WI.bls0422

The Kodak camera, introduced in 1888, was the first to employ roll film. It was also the easiest to operate (the Eastman Company’s slogan was “You press the button, we’ll do the rest”). It is not clear what brand of camera the Brittinghams used, but the existence of both glass and film negatives in the collection suggest there was more than one.

In 1955, Margaret Brittingham Reid and Thomas Brittingham, Jr. donated the Brittingham family home, fully furnished, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (it currently serves as the official residence of the UW System President). Thirteen years later, several wooden boxes containing lantern slides and film and glass plate negatives were discovered in the attic.

The trustees of the Brittingham Fund agreed to donate the collection to UW-Madison. In 1969, UW-Madison President E. B. Fred determined there were 1847 slides in the collection and calculated their value at $2,820.50—the cost of producing that many glass plate slides ($1.50 per slide at that time) plus the value of the cases holding the slides.

Obviously, this unique collection’s intrinsic social and historical value far surpasses that estimate. Today the collection contains 1,845 slides; two have been lost over the years. 1,620 of those images have been digitized for this online collection.

Lantern slides were a popular way to view and share photographs in the 1800s and early 1900s. Created from negatives, the slides are positive images enclosed between two plates of glass. They were positioned in front of a light source in handheld viewers or special projectors (whose predecessors were called “magic lanterns”) that projected the image onto a wall or other surface.

Three women and a man pose for a picture in formal dress. #WI.bls0610

Three women and a man pose for a picture in formal dress. #WI.bls0610

Most of the slides in this collection were created from negatives taken by the family, usually one of the senior Brittinghams. Nearly all of these images are framed by a paper border, upon which one of the Brittinghams recorded the date, location, title, and, on occasion, the photographer.

A second group of slides in this collection was created from professional photographs that were most likely purchased by the Brittinghams during their travels abroad. Many of these commercial slides, especially those from Japan, have been hand-painted; the paint was applied directly to the black and white image. Although hand-painted images were common during this period, only two of the Brittingham’s personal slides were painted.