The Magical Mystery Tour

by D.H.T. Shippey & Michael Burns

Have you ever dared dream of looking upon the burning mountain of Vesuvius, or with your eyes closed envisioned the long colonnades in the Palace of the Grand Turk? Would you dare look on at the fateful moment of Thomas a’ Becket’s Assassination or witness the amazing displays of courage at the Battle of Bunker Hill? Have you ever seen such wonders before? No, never! Presently I can show you all of these and more contained right here in this most amazing box.  Now attention, while I describe them. There is no purpose to seeing fine sights and learning nothing from them; my maxim has always been, delight the eye, inform the head, and correct the heart. Now then, Your attention...”

     So would begin the wonderful raree show (derived from rarity show), a traveling peep show that would appear at town faires, market days, court days, muster days or any other of the “public” days when people gathered. The operator of the show would often blow a horn or ring a bell to draw a crowd before beginning his spiel. Period depictions show children gathered around the raree show, but there can be little doubt that they were enjoyed by adults as well.

Once you had paid the small fee to look into the view hole of the box the show-man would spin captivating stories about the image inside. What you saw inside depended greatly on the show-man and the complexity of his raree show box. A simple box might only have a print from a broadside or magazine that had been hand painted and placed inside. A very high quality show box might have multiple layers creating the illusion of depth, lighting effects to turn it from night to day, cut out windows with tissue paper backing, moving parts, mirrors to create illusions and even small fireworks to amaze the viewer.

     The invention of the techniques used in the raree show box dates back at least to the mid 15th century when Leon Battista Alberti, a priest, artist, author, architect and more, painted scenes on  pieces of glass and placed them inside a camera obscura. These scenes created exaggerated illusions of depth and used backlighting for dramatic effect. Alberti even placed small three-dimensional figures in the scenes for greater reality. 


         New York burning in day and night

Two and a half centuries later, along came artist Martin Engelbrecht, a print seller and engraver in Augsburg, Germany. Around 1730, he started creating cards for miniature theaters, which when inserted into a display box showed pictures of religious scenes and daily life in a heightened perspective.  He created an entire series on the Italian theater, making three dimensional images that are rightly considered the first toy theaters.

In the April, 1753 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a Mr. S. Parrat described an apparatus shown as a combination view box and camera obscura.

When a picture was placed inside it could be viewed through the lens, but when the picture was removed the lens would project an image of the outside into the back of the box.
People in the 18th century enjoyed illusions and scientific demonstrations. In an age before television or film, the raree show was an extraordinary taste of visual entertainment technology that allowed one to see things that could not easily be reproduced on a stage or described in books.

      The popularity of the raree show continued into the 19th century with some showmen in Europe, such as the famous Sargent Bell and his Royal Raree Show, becoming minor celebrities.

The science and art of the show boxes later developed into magic lanterns, home peep shows and eventually the stereoscope viewer. With the invention of the photograph and, of course, the moving picture show the days of the raree showman were numbered. Yet through the many surviving show cards and countless images of the raree-showmen in paintings, etchings and woodcuts we can get a small glimpse of this once popular entertainment.

Looking at the surviving images and reading the descriptions of others, one is impressed by the creativity involved in the manufacture and display of these shows. Effects like fire, starlight, movement and depth are taken for granted now, but seeing them captured in a box must have been pure magic for the audiences of their day. The most amazing sights and scenes in all of history could be seen for only a farthing or a ha-penny. In the words of the show-man, “My maxim has always been, delight the eye, inform the head, and correct the heart. Now then, Your attention.”

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