Ensign Magic Lanterns
by Didier Ghez and Douglas R. Hausknecht
Let’s time travel. On
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.
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
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 Mouse in Pigmyland
Mickey Mouse in
Mickey’s Express Delivery
Donald Duck in an Alpine Adventure
Pluto on Ice
Night Before Christmas
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
A love Serenade
Mickey Goes to War
The Jolly Farmer
A Wild Ride
The Cat’s Away
A Cheese Roll
The Big Show
A Piano Concerto
b) Silly Symphonies
Nursery Rhymes I
Nursery Rhymes II
Nursery Rhymes III
The Skeleton Dance
At Cock Crow
VI. Magic Lantern slide set created after the war by Johnsons of Hendon