Guardian Digital Archive

As promised, The Guardian (1821-1975) and The Observer (1900-1975) newspapers have been placed online from today. The web address is

This is another huge boon for research in our area, and I’ve found and downloaded assorted gems from The Guardian already. A powerful eye-witness account of the Bazar de la charité fire in Paris (6 May 1897, p 8), an enthusiastic report on microcinematography (15 August 1903, p. 7), a leader on the rise of the picture theatre (3 July 1911, p 6), a report on Maurice Elvey filming Hindle Wakes (set in Lancashire) (28 October 1926, p 11), a fascinating article on watching films in Moscow in 1927 (5 January 1927, p 16), and a wonderful piece on ‘Flicker Alley’ (17 October 1911, p 14), the name given for Cecil Court, the short London street near Leicester Square, which was the home of London’s early film businesses before they all moved on to Wardour Street.

Its windows show wild-looking mechanical contrivances that, whatever they may really be, always seems so concentrated that one thinks of them as the very intestines of machinery; and the men who go in and out of the doors (usually in groups of four or five with a voluable one a little ahead) having a hustling, sharp-eyed, yet half-whimsical look … The cinematograph trade is yet too young to have evolved a type, but it seemed to me that the denizens of Flicker Alley (as they call this passage) all have something characteristic that marks them off from ordinary men. Possibly the endless films they look at affects the eye-nerves or teahes the mind to think of the eye as something to switch off and on – a glance, a calculation, another look, a “glad eye,” another calculation, and so on. They flicker. Their conversation flickers too, mainly in rapid Yankee slang jerked at a hard pace, a well-known figure there creating the flicker illusion best with an inimitable stutter. They run about all over Europe and America, these quick, handy, cheery people, and some seek to rival the cosmopolitanism of the cinematograph by making their speech a compote of foreign catchwords. You see no old men. The “father of the trade” looks about forty. With them antiquity was last week, and posterity is coming round to look at their films to-morrow.

I wrote earlier that the service would be free for the first month, but I was wrong – it is half price for this month, which means, for instance, that a twenty-four hour pass will cost you £3.97. Use the Advanced Search, not the Simple Search, as it allows you to sort results in date order, and to search across articles, or picitures, or advertisements. Searching itself is free; you pay to see the article, which can be printed or stored in a MyCollection page.

Some quibbles. I couldn’t make images print using Firefox; use Explorer instead. The search results give you an image of the heading of the item, which does not always indicate when it is relevant to your search, and some time is wasted opening up irrelevant pages. Your search word is underlined in blue on the selected documents, which has the unfortunate effect of sometimes obscuring the words underneath. You only get four or five results per page, which is frustrating and makes searching for the right record more of a chore than it should be. You cannot go from an article you’ve viewed to the rest of the newspaper for that day, though there is an alternative browse option which lets you look at the full newspaper for any one day. But you cannot narrow subject searches by day, or even year.

Minor gripes aside, this is a treasure trove. Remember that for most of this time period, the Guardian was based in Manchester, which gives a different slant to its news coverage. Also, despite The Observer search option saying that covers 1900-1975, there seem to be no records available prior to 1932.

Update: The Guardian is currently offering a free introductory 24-hour pass to its Digital Archive, presumably for a short period only.

Visual archaeology

A couple of items on magic lanterns in America. Firstly, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently hosting an exhibition, Panoramas of the Moving Image: Mechanical Slides and Dissolving Views from Nineteenth-Century Magic Lantern Shows. This is a combination of modern and traditional takes on ‘pre-cinema’ technology. At the heart of the exhibition is experimental media artist Ernie Gehr’s Panoramas of the Moving Image (2005), a synchronized five-channel video installation that uses eighty-seven original slides and views selected from Gehr’s personal collection and that of film archivist and magic lantern collector David Francis. This is accompanied by a display of paper Zoetrope strips and Phenakistiscope discs, complementary nineteenth-century moving image technologies. The exhibition runs until 25 February 2008.

Herman Bollaert

Herman Bollaert uses all three lenses of his 19th-century magic lantern to give the “Warehouse in Flames” image added smoke-and-fire effects, from

Meanwhile, in Washington, we have the Belgian Herman Bollaert and his troupe of musicians putting on the The Lanterna Magica Galantee Show at the French embassy. There’s a fine review by Philip Kennicott of this recreation of a nineteenth-century magic lantern show in The Washington Post, which places the lantern within a wider history of visual technologies, following its inheritance through to PowerPoint and the Xbox:

Watching Herman Bollaert and his crew of projectionists manipulate his 19th-century magic lantern is a bit like watching a very old and finicky sailboat being steered into the wind. There is a lot of fussing and fiddling, turning and cranking, all in the service of a charmingly antiquated technology. If you would rather take a powerboat than sail, or watch “The Matrix” on DVD than spend an evening with hand-painted slides of country cottages and windmills, there’s really no point in showing up this evening at the French Embassy, where Bollaert and his Belgian troupe of musicians and lanternists are performing a bit of visual archaeology.

Bollaert’s contraption, a three-lens wooden box from 1880, was made during the great era of magic-lantern shows. Its basic technology was in use during the 17th century, and quite possibly much, much earlier. But in the 19th century, with the growth of all forms of popular entertainment, lanterns became the precursors of the cinema. Slides with moving parts created special effects. Popular novels were presented in narrated slide shows, and science was taught to professionals and amateurs alike through projected images. Musicians often accompanied such popular entertainments, which could include a survey of historic places, short parables and stories, religious spectacles and Gothic horror shows.

The technology was basic – limelight (made by superheated limestone) or kerosene flames were used to project the images onto screens – but its impact was long-lasting. The magic lantern enjoyed popularity well into the 20th century, fading only as cinema took over. It persisted in the form of school slide shows and filmstrips, and is still the animating spirit behind projected PowerPoint presentations. Whole generations of Americans got their first glimpse of human sex organs in health class through a filmstrip projector – a descendant of Bollaert’s machine – which cast lurid pictures into the semi-darkness, into a room of tittering, blushing and sometimes salivating adolescents.

You can read the rest of the article, which brings in Arthur Schopenhauer and Marcel Proust, on the Washington Post site. But here’s the thoughtful final paragraph:

It’s difficult to coax the contemporary mind into the position of someone of two or three centuries ago, who found the basic images projected by lanterns to be amazingly lifelike (aesthetically), emotionally powerful (artistically) and profoundly troubling (philosophically). But like the water wheel set turning by Bollaert’s expert hand, things will come full circle. With the rise of ever more complex virtual realities, once again the philosophical mind is set puzzling over the nature of the real. But now, in our world of Xboxes and Wii consoles, one is hardly aware of the machine that creates the representation, there is no tactile connection between the image and its master, and the boat of illusions sails forth with no hands on deck.

The so-called optical toys of the nineteenth-century, such as the Phenakistiscope, the Zoetrope and the Thaumatrope, were sometimes referred to as philosophical toys. We should always bring a philosophical mind to the moving images placed before us. It is what they are there for.

God’s soldiers

Joseph Perry

Joseph Perry, from

While at Pordenone I met with Tony Fletcher, early film researcher extraordinaire, who told me about a DVD made by the Salvation Army, William Booth – God’s Soldier. This includes a substantial amount of film of Booth, the founder of the Army, in the early years of the twentieth century. The Salvation Army site includes a clip from the film, showing Booth’s motor tour through Britain in 1904 (unfortunately with added-on crowd noises and sound effects). It just goes to show how it’s worth looking in odd places to find early film materials.

It’s also a reminder of the great importance played by the Salvation Army in early film history, and I thought I provide a quick survey with links to assorted online resources. Many social interest groups and charities took an interest in using moving pictures to support their work, almost as soon as films were first made widely available on screen in 1896. None was more active in this area than the Salvation Army, particularly in Australia.

Herbert Booth

Herbert Booth, from

There in 1896 Herbert Booth, rebellious son of William, joined Joseph Perry, who ran the Army’s Limelight Department. Together they added film to the Limelight Department’s multi-media show of Bible stories and uplifting instruction, which combined magic lanterns, photography, choral singing and sermons to create powerful, and hugely popular, narrative spectaculars. One such show, Soldiers of the Cross, first created in 1900, is sometimes cited as being the world’s first feature film, though in fact it was not a single film but rather a combination of slides, film, scripture and song. Moreover, it was preceded by an earlier effort, the two-and-a-half-hour Social Salvation (1898).

Booth and Perry built a glass-walled film studio at 69 Bourke Street, Melbourne in 1898. The room still exists as a archive and museum maintained by the army, with exhibits on the Limelight Department’s work. Initially they filmed with a Lumière Cinématographe, but by 1901 the were using a Warwick Bioscope. Soldiers of the Cross was exhibited across Australia, but Herbert Booth clashed with Salvation Army command in London, and left the Army in 1902, moving to San Francisco and taking Soldiers of the Cross with him. Perry continued in the film industry, increasingly making secular films, and continued as a film distributor into the 1920s.

William Booth himself made good use of film to propagandise for his cause. He had a film cameraman assigned to the Army, Henry Howse, who went with him to the Holy Land in 1905, and filmed many, if not all, of the early films of Booth featured in the God’s Soldier DVD. The original films are now preserved in the BFI National Archive.

There is an excellent site, Limelight, telling the story of the Limelight Department in Australia, based on a 2001 Australian Broadcasting Commission programme and exhibition. This has extensive information on the people behind the Limelight Department, the films they made and used, their tours, and the broader context of Australian early film history.

The Salvation Army in Australia provides its own history of the Limelight Department and its filmmaking activities, plus a history of the making of Soldiers of the Cross.

The National Film and Sound Archive in Australia has a feature on Soldiers of the Cross, which includes selections of the magic lantern slides that were a part of the show (none of the original film is known to survive, but the show did include some Lumière life of Christ films, which do survive).

The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site has biographical entries on Herbert Booth and Joseph Perry.

Much research has been done into the Salvation Army and its use of film in these early years by the American scholar Dean Rapp. His essay, ‘The British Salvation Army, the Early Film Industry and Urban Working-Class Adolescents, 1897-1918’, in 20th Century British History 7:2 (1996), is well worth tracking down (it’s available online through some academic subscription services).

Finally, the Salvation Army continues to make use of moving images, and has an active video unit.