Long before the birth of cinema, audiences gathered to see pictures on a screen in the form of magic lantern shows. A forerunner of the slide projector, the lantern was used to project painted or photographic glass slides, some with moving parts.
Magic lanterns date back to the 17th century and were used until the mid 1950s, but it is their Victorian heyday which this slide, the infamous ‘man eating rat’, represents.
Neither beautiful nor sophisticated, yet probably the most popular slide of all, it is a piece of surreal grotesquery in which an endless procession of rats run into the mouth of a heavily sleeping man, who snores on contentedly.
In the classic version, the rats were painted on a rotating circular slide beneath the image of the man, giving the impression of a never-ending stream of kamikaze rodents. This cut-price alternative—man eating one rat—is a double slipping slide, with three overlaid pieces of glass: one painted with the static part of the image, another on which the sleeper’s lower jaw is moved up and down, and a third drawing the rat from right to left.
The slide’s popularity is attested to by the numbers still in existence and by its longevity: it was sold from at least the 1850s until the 1900s. This slide was made by Baker of London, but many other slide manufacturers had similar examples.
Contemporary accounts testify to the enthusiasm with which it was met, with one lanternist reporting that it:
… caused a stomping and a shouting, such as would eclipse a more civilised audience.
Even with more restrained audiences, shows were far from staid. Showmanship was an essential ingredient, with slides being accompanied by commentary, poems, readings and, sometimes, sound effects. Audiences often participated and may have snored along with the sleeper or counted the rats consumed.
Remarkable for its sheer oddity and the phenomenon of its success, the ‘man eating rat’ evokes the atmosphere of a vanished form of entertainment.