Fans of so-called “poverty porn” television shows, such as Benefits Street, Skint and On Benefits & Proud, could be forgiven for thinking that the genre emerged only recently. But new research reveals that the Victorians got there first.
In the late 19th century, working-class audiences were regularly shown slides depicting characters struggling with social deprivation. The slides – originally paintings, later prints or photographs – were displayed on transparent plates that were illuminated using an image projector known as a magic lantern.
Vicars, charity workers and others who worked with poor people hoped that the slideshows – which often included images depicting the effects of drink on families and children – would encourage those in need to be more virtuous and the wealthy to be more generous towards them.
“Some of these magic lantern slides may now appear melodramatic or naive to modern viewers, but they were skilfully designed to manipulate emotions,” said Professor Joe Kember from the University of Exeter, one of the researchers.
The slideshows used some of the same principles as today’s reality TV programmes to convey their messages, Kember explained. These included the use of recognisable characters and dramatic storylines set in extreme situations.
One notable example is Christmas in Paradise, produced in 1893, which tells the story of a loving mother so overcome with drink that she can no longer care for her young son, who dies as a result of her neglect. The slide show reveals that his mother had three pennies to spend on him, but was unable to pass by a pub without going in, an action that seals her son’s fate.
Church ministers, activists and charity workers would have shown the slides at church halls, or at orphanages and workhouses, Kember explained. But they would have also been shown to middle-class audiences at fundraising events.
“The appeal of people watching stories about characters designed to look like them, and live in a similar way to them, should not be underestimated,” Kember said. “The messages in these slides were also made more powerful because they were delivered in familiar surroundings, often by local speakers, whether these were local reverends to their congregations, mission leaders to temperance groups, or charitable organisations to the well-heeled.”
Kember and Dr Richard Crangle, also of the University of Exeter, have worked extensively with museums including the Victoria & Albert in London to research magic lanterns, which waned in popularity as cinema took off. The pair examined thousands of newspaper reports of lantern and film exhibitions in different parts of the UK to discover where they were popular and who watched them.
The records show that many of the slides were designed to be entertaining and educational, featuring topics such as geography, architecture and astronomy. Others depicted firemen, lifeboat crews and sea creatures or were retellings of classic stories.
However, a large number were designed as social propaganda and drew attention to the extremes of poverty and social deprivation. Others promoted religion. Where is the Bible? (1901), which depicted how a husband and wife were saved by reading the scriptures, proselytised for Christianity.
The slides often featured death, and especially the death of children, but always ended with characters being redeemed, a common theme that has been reprised in today’s poverty porn television shows.
Interest in magic lanterns continues to this day. The Magic Lantern Society (MLS), which dates back to 1977, publishes a quarterly magazine and promotes events around the world. It also publishes an online list of active lanternists in the UK and other countries.
The devices’ earliest incarnations can be traced to the 15th century, although the manipulation of light to produce an image dates back millennia. In the late 18th century, showmen used lanterns to produce horror shows, or phantasmagoria. Terrifying images were produced, including ghosts projected on to smoke and shapes that moved on walls.
However, the MLS explains that it was towards the end of the Victorian era that the lantern trade flourished.
In the 1880s and 1890s, more than 30 firms were engaged in the production of lanterns and slides in London alone. As the shows gained in popularity, they were set to music or the spoken word.
Crangle and colleagues have digitised thousands of slides to produce the Lucerna Magic Lantern Web Resource the largest database of lantern slides in the world. Free to use, it contains more than 43,000 images of lantern slides and 200,000 slide records.
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