Lantern Slides for Garden and Historic House Lectures
The photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) was a dedicated advocate of the garden beautiful movement in the early 1900s. Guided by her formal training as a fine artist, she had 1,134 of her black-and-white photographs reproduced as lantern slides. These views on glass, most hand-tinted, illustrated Johnston's popular lectures, which she delivered to garden club members, museum audiences, and horticultural societies from 1915 through the 1930s. To make sense of this remarkable collection, house and garden historian Sam Watters researched Johnston's life and times and tracked down information to identify each garden. The book he wrote, Gardens for a Beautiful America, provides the necessary context for understanding these lantern slides. This definitive guide to Johnston's photography also includes extensive footnotes and a full bibliography.
Johnston's photographs depict more than 200 sites--primarily private gardens but also horticultural shows, a public library and museum, and several parks. Geographically the slides feature the American East, West, and South, with Europe represented by Italy, France, and England. Johnston used the slides in various combinations to present thematic lectures and included illustrations from books, landscape plans, and close-up views of plants.
Her talk "Our American Gardens," which she delivered in the 1910s and 1920s, featured estates from Virginia to Rhode Island. In 1917, she introduced "California Gardens." (Slides in this group are unique for their labels that identify by number Johnston's presentation sequence.) By the early 1920s, Johnston was promoting her talks with a self-published brochure. The lecture subjects included "Problems of the Small Garden," "Gardens for City and Suburb," "Wild Flower Gardening," and "Garden Lore and Flower Legend," which incorporated slides from her regional collections. In 1925, with photographs from her nine-month tour of Europe, she created "Old World Gardens" and also exhibited print photographs at New York's prestigious Ferargil Galleries. (The checklist for this exhibition is in the Johnston archive.) For her final slide set, "Tales Old Houses Tell," Johnston turned to photographs she took in the 1930s to promote the study and preservation of Southern buildings. Most of these images come from the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South.
Johnston's garden and architecture photographs reflect her goal to establish an archive that documents America's house and garden heritage and inspires the preservation of historic sites. Johnston worked closely with the Library of Congress from the late 1920s to the 1940s, and created a significant body of work that complements the Historic American Buildings Survey and other Library collections founded by Leicester B. Holland while he was chief of the Prints & Photographs Division. The Library purchased Johnston's archive from her estate in 1953, including these lantern slides, which represent an estimated 70% of the slides Johnston used during her lifetime.
Lantern slides are small glass transparencies, typically 3.25 x 4 inches, designed for use in a projector that casts an enlarged image on a screen or other flat surface. This technology dates back as early as the 1600s when candles and then lamps and lanterns were used to project scenes drawn by hand on glass plates to tell stories for entertainment and education. By 1850, not long after the invention of photography, lantern slides were also used for photographic images.
Typically, a photographic negative is first "printed" as a positive transparency on a sheet of glass. Hand coloring or an overall toning can be applied to the emulsion side of the image. Then, a cover glass is added to protect the delicate surface. An opaque paper mask is also placed between the two glass sheets to frame the scene. A paper strip binds the edges of the glass sheets together, like a sandwich. (The mask and paper binding strip are often black.) A color dot applied to the cover glass keeps the image orientation clear.
The technical details of how lantern slides were made during Johnston's era are well described in an 1899 special issue of The Photo Miniature by John Tennant, a promoter of amateur photography.
Johnston's slides are exceptional for their state of preservation and detailed hand coloring. At first, the photographer commissioned free-lance colorist Grace Adele Smith Anderson from Dayton, Ohio. In the 1920s Johnston turned to the established Edward van Altena firm in New York City for slides of European gardens and Southern architecture. The T.H. McAllister-Keller Co., at 176 Fulton Street in New York City, also manufactured slides for Johnston. William Oscar Hazard, in Takoma Park, Maryland, was her freelance colorist for the southern slides.
How realistic are the colors? Johnston provided notes on the backs of her photographic prints as a general guide for the colorists. But in some cases, other historical sources indicate that the slide color should be different. For example, the gray wooden gate in this view of the garden at the Casa de Mariposa was actually painted a bright blue-green.
Johnston left few notes to identify her slides, and more than 600 in this collection have no labels at all. To provide the garden names, locations, dates, and site histories, Sam Watters, a house and garden historian, spent five years researching in libraries and archives across the country. His sources included "archival photographs, landscape plans, descriptions in periodicals, newspapers, and historic collections." As a result, detailed data has significantly enhanced the historic and cultural significance of the Johnston slides. To cite just one example, an early Library caption "California garden" has become "Arcady, George Owen Knapp house, Sycamore Canyon Road, Montecito, California, Spring 1917."
Johnston took the photographs dated 1895-1909 and 1917-1935. The photographs dated 1910-1916 were taken during her partnership with Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Both photographers are credited as the image creators for the approximately 250 slides from those years. The seasons in dates correspond to these months: Winter (December, January, February); Spring (March, April, May); Summer (June, July, August); and Fall (September, October, November).
When Johnston acquired slides from other sources, the photographer or organization is cited. Examples include Charles Berg, the Bronx Parkway Commission, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Cash Register Company. Johnston is noted as the lecturer, when she is not the photographer.
The call number prefix code "LC-J717" identifies all the lantern slides. Within that filing series, subgroups are numbered from X97 to X110, and within a group, each slide has its own unique number. Example: LC-J717-X98-23. Keep in mind, though, that the subgroups do not represent a specific lecture. Photos of the same garden can often be found im many different subgroups, with two exceptions: "LC-J717-X102" has the book illustrations, and "LC-J717-106" has "Tales Old Houses Tell."
The digital images provide full access to the collection. All of the lantern slides were digitized because the original slides are too fragile for general use. The catalog records provide detailed information about the markings on the slides. The shattered glass in this image shows the harmful damage that can occur, www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.16780/.
Online Resources at the Library of Congress
- Biographical Overview and Chronology of Frances Benjamin Johnston's life.
- Johnston Collection--with more than 2,500 photos digitized from throughout her career.
- Overview of the entire Johnston Collection, including the undigitized bulk of the archive.
- Finding aid to Johnston's Personal Papers, in the Manuscript Division.
- Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South collection--the source for most images in the lantern slide lecture Johnston called "Tales Old Houses Tell."
Acknowledgement: Most of the information in this collection profile comes from Sam Watters' book Gardens for a Beautiful America, with additional examples compiled by Helena Zinkham, April 2012.