Ensign Magic Lanterns

by Didier Ghez and Douglas R. Hausknecht



Let’s time travel. On December 28th , 1895 the Lumiere Brothers revealed in Paris their new invention, the Cinematographe, that Walt would use, 33 years later to give birth to Mickey.


Let’s time travel further, all the way to the middle of the seventeenth century, to discover the ancestor of the Cinematographe, subject of this article : the Magic Lantern, a marvelous projection device not so remote technologically speaking from our modern slide projectors.


In the twentieth century, magic lanterns would become kid toys, but in the 1650s they were still part of the world of adults and serious tools of experiments. The famous Dutch scientist Christian Huygens was fascinated with them and “toyed” with lantern projectors very methodically, as did mathematician Thomas Walgensten, the first person to use the term Lanterna Magica (Magic Lantern).


150 years later, from tools of scientific experiments, magic lanterns became entertainment devices. The late eighteenth century saw the appearance of a new type of shows: Phantasmagorias, horror shows made possible by the lanterns.


But in England, in the 1930s, when Mickey Mouse became popular, magic lanterns had evolved to yet a new stage and were now found in family homes. They were, in a sense, the ancestors of slide shows… with a real entertainment edge, though.


Small wonder, therefore, if one of the great English optical companies, Ensign Ltd. (the sales wing of George Houghton & Son) decided to create Walt Disney magic lantern kits.


The George Houghton company, which had been created in 1836 in London, had been specializing for close to 100 years in the manufacturing of optical devices when it decided to launch a series of Disney magic lantern sets under its Ensign Ltd. Brand.


The magic lantern slides were sold either as stand alone sets or combined with the lantern projectors. The authors know of at least four different types of “magic-lantern-projector-plus-slides” kits sold by Ensign before the war. The box of the earliest one represents Mickey Mouse fox hunting. While two other boxes are very bland, the fourth one, representing the Three Little Pigs and the Tortoise (from the Silly Symphony The Tortoise and the Hare) playing the piano, is by far, the most colorful.


The magic lantern slides themselves were divided in several categories: the first series was composed of 11 square sets in black and white, with Mickey as the hero. Those stories – based on the book “Mickey Mouse illustrated movie stories” released by Dean & Son Ltd. – were later reused for a second series of 11 sets in black and white, this time of a rectangular format.


In 1933, Ensign released a series of fourteen “3 Little Pigs” square slides that are among the rarest to find. This probably marked the first creation of a color Disney slide set by Ensign and was to be followed by tens more, those being rectangular and based on all types of Disney properties, from classical Mickey stories (“Mickey in Giant land”, “Mickey Crusoe”,…) to Silly Symphonies (“The Night Before Christmas”, The Pied Piper”,…) and animated features (“Snow White” and “Pinocchio”).


Although the magic lantern slides were by far the most original Disney items Ensign Ltd. produced in the ‘30s, it did not limit itself to those. It also sold a marvelous “Mickey Mouse” camera outfit, several Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies 16mm films, “safe toy” films and even a little music toy which was supposed to enhance the entertainment experience of Disney “safe toy” films projection.


On the nights of the 24th and 25th of September 1940, enemy bombing destroyed the offices of Ensign Ltd. On October 7th of the same year, Ensign Ltd. was wound up and sold its remaining stock to Johnson & Sons of Hendon, who also happened to produce at least one Disney magic lantern set after the war.


This last vignette of rebirth concludes our slide show and time travel. Please keep your hands and arms inside the time machine till it comes to a complete stop.


We wish to thank Adrian Richmond and Robert Fuston Hall who provided crucial informations and photos for this article.



A Guide to Ensign Ltd. Disney products



I. Magic lantern slides


a)      Sets of square black and white Mickey slides (8 slides per box)

Those sets are named J/A to J/L, except for J/I that does not exist.


J/A Pioneer Days

J/B Traffic Trouble

J/C The Gorilla Mystery

J/D The Cactus Kid

J/E The Birthday Party

J/F The Castaway

J/G The Delivery Boy

J/H The Moose Hunt

J/J Mickey Steps Out

J/K Fishin’ Around

J/L The Fire Fighters


b)      Sets of rectangular black and white Mickey slides (two slides per box)

Those sets are named T/A to T/L, except for T/I that does not exist.

The titles are the same as the ones of the series J/A to J/L


c)      Set of 14 square color Three Little Pigs slides


d)      Small sets of rectangular color slides (two slides per box)


Mickey Crusoe

Mickey Mouse in Pigmyland

Mickey Mouse in Giant Land

Mickey’s Express Delivery

Donald Duck in an Alpine Adventure

Policeman Donald

Pluto on Ice

Night Before Christmas

Santa’s Workshop

The Pied Piper

The Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (3 parts series)

Pinocchio (3 parts series)


e)      Medium sets of rectangular color slides (4 slides per box)


The Pied Piper

The Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood


f)        Big sets of rectangular color slides (6 slides per box)


Three Little Pigs

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs



II. Magic lantern kits including the projector


a)      Box with Mickey fox hunting

b)      Box looking like a suitcase containing lantern and square B&W Mickey Mouse slides

c)      Box looking like a suitcase containing lantern and rectangular B&W Mickey Mouse slides

d)      Box in color featuring Three Little Pigs and Tortoise playing the piano


III. Photo outfits


a)      Complete Photo Outfit

Includes camera, carrying case, 2 six exposure films, printing frame, two dishes, measure, dark room lamp, daylight and gaslight paper, album, developer and fixing salts.

b)      Mickey Mouse Daylight Printing Outfit

c)      Mickey Mouse Gaslight Printing Outfit

d)      Mickey Mouse Large Prints Outfit


IV. “Safe Toys” films


a)      “Safe Toy” films

The number of films that were produced in this series as well as there titles is unknown to the authors.

b)      “Safe Toy” music toy


V. 16mm films


a)      Mickey Mouse


Carnival Days

A love Serenade

Phantom House


Mickey Enlists

Mickey Goes to War

The Jolly Farmer

A Wild Ride

The Cat’s Away

A Cheese Roll

The Big Show


A Piano Concerto

Jungle Jinks

Animal Antics


b)      Silly Symphonies


Nursery Rhymes I

Nursery Rhymes II

Nursery Rhymes III

The Brownies

Merry Elves


Frog Follies



Zulu Jazz


The Skeleton Dance

At Cock Crow


VI. Magic Lantern slide set created after the war by Johnsons of Hendon