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Our Steampunk Oculus: HPL’s Magic Lantern

5 Jun
HPL Magic Lantern

The library’s magic lantern opened up to reveal the interior. Visible are two lenses and an antique-styled light bulb.

The Hoboken Public Library’s history collection may be mostly books, photographs, and historic newspapers, but there are a few physical artifacts within our walls, as well. Part of our collection includes an antiquated edutainment device called a magic lantern and the slides that were used to do all manner of presentations at the library.

Before film and the modern projector, magic lanterns were the best way to produce a slideshow – think of them as 19th century PowerPoint presentations, but sometimes with added special effects if the show was aiming to be more entertaining than educational. The technology for the magic lantern was first properly developed by Christian Huygens in the 1600s, magic lanterns really took off in the 18th and 19th centuries as a form of entertainment and as a method of illustrating lectures and other educational events. The heyday of the technology was in the middle and late 19th century and early 20th century; as mentioned above, film eclipsed the entertainment aspects of the magic lantern during the 1920s, and although magic lanterns continued to be used to project previews onto the screens before and after movie screenings, they were eventually replaced by the projector, as well. The technology used in a magic lantern is relatively simple – it utilizes lenses and a light source to project an image on a glass slide onto a screen, and much like a modern day projector it can be adjusted for focus depending on its distance from the screen. To see this more easily, here’s a photo of our own magic lantern opened up:

As you can likely see in the image above, our magic lantern utilizes a lightbulb, which immediately dates it to post-1879, when lightbulbs became commercially available following Edison’s patent. During my research on our lantern, I was able to locate a sibling lantern of sorts that had once been for sale online. Both were manufactured by Charles Beseler and Co., a company still around today (albeit as a supplier of photographic equipment). The serial number on our model is 2031; the seller’s model had the serial number 2357, making it slightly younger than our own. Their date estimate was the late 1910s-early 1920s, which seems about right given the circumstances. Hoboken Public Library has been in the current building since 1897, and although I’ve so far been unable to confirm exactly when we acquired the lantern, I’ve heard that the library did use it for programming, so those dates would likely line up well. The box our lantern is contained in refers to it as a B-1, which is likely the model number, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on an old Charles Beseler and Co. catalogue to confirm this yet.

I took quite a few photos of our magic lantern before packing it up to store it with the rest of the history collection during the renovation process on the second floor.   Although we have the reference and history collection in storage, you can still find temporarily computers and seating for adults on the third floor.  Here’s a selection of the photos I took:


Magic Lantern Label

The serial number and the Charles Beseler and Co. logo, a swan on a lake.

Magic Lantern Lens

A better shot of the lens from up front.

Magic Lantern Slides

A selection of some of the slides the library has. The slide collection is actually quite vast!


The lantern is actually lighter than it looks at first glance, and the handle makes it easier to move around and set up when it’s not in its box.

At the moment, our lantern is sitting dormant, but we’d love to get it into full working order and do a proper magic lantern program here at the library. Hopefully in the near future once this phase of the second floor renovations are complete we’ll be able to put on a little show for you all! Until then, stay tuned for more history content (especially as I unpack it all once the renovations are done – thank you for your patience!). You can always access digitized versions of parts of our collection online. Another great source for Hoboken historic materials is the Hoboken Historical Museum (check them out if you haven’t)!

You can check out the library’s high tech modern version of the Magic Lantern, the immersive virtual reality Oculus during our Open Makerspace Time on Mondays from 1 PM-7 PM in the library’s lower level programming space!

Written By:
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian/Archivist at the Hoboken Public Library


The Big Move: Discoveries while Temporarily Relocating Our History Collection

3 Apr

You may have noticed some changes in the local history department this month! If you’ve been up on the second floor, you’ve likely seen that the cages in the Sinatra Room are all empty for the time being. Don’t worry, we’re not getting rid of the history collection – we’re just boxing it all up to keep it safe during some renovations to the building! I couldn’t be more excited about it because I love when historic buildings are restored. It follows along with my field’s mission of historic preservation – I can’t imagine any archivist would be upset about this, even when they have to pack fifty boxes worth of books up to temporarily put them in storage. That admittedly was a lot of work, but it was incredibly important that I did so both to protect the collection and learn more about what we had in that cabinet. I only started working here in May of 2018, so familiarizing myself with the collection has been one of my top priorities, and the best way to do that is to work with it hands-on and see each item myself. This process, naturally, has led to some pretty cool finds, and I’d like to share those with you this month.

We’ll start with some actual library history: before card catalogues existed, how did patrons know what the library’s holdings were? Those holdings were printed in actual catalogue books! A few of those books belonging to our very own Hoboken Public Library have survived in our collection, and once they’re unpacked again you’ll be able to view them here. The especially interesting part is that they’re not just in English – due to Hoboken’s large German-speaking population around the turn of the century, we have a German-language catalogue of the library’s holdings as well!

Or maybe you’re more like me and you have an overly-specific, undergraduate degree in a four-year period in American history. If that’s the case – or if you’re just into the American Civil War – we have a two-volume set of books that provides a complete listing of every New Jersey soldier who served during the conflict by unit. I immediately utilized these upon finding them to look up the records of the individual soldier who had been the subject of my undergraduate thesis at Gettysburg College, where I minored in Civil War Era Studies.  This is a particularly amazing research resource and I fully intend to digitize it completely once the collection is resettled.

Civil War NJ

Baseball history? Yeah, we’ve got plenty of that!


New Jersey history? Check!

Houses NJ

You name it, we might just have it if it is relevant to Hoboken or New Jersey history!

When I packed everything up, I made a full inventory of exactly what we have in the book collection, which you’ll hopefully be able to find on our website within the next few months as I reorganize everything after we’re done with the second floor renovations. There’ll hopefully be something on that list that piques your interest – and as long as you make an appointment to view it, you can take a look at it in person! In the meantime, thanks for being patient with us as we temporarily store everything to keep it safe! (I apologize for any noise I made in the reading room as I was packing boxes.) We’ll be back to normal soon, so stay tuned for more history!   And of course even if some of our physical items are in storage, you can still access some of our collection online.

Written by:
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian/Archivist at the Hoboken Public Library

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