With the ubiquity of digital photography today, it’s occasionally difficult to realize how much effort was involved, not just in taking photographs, but in sharing photographs for the early settlers of the Palouse.
Most photography in that era took place through the medium of dry plates — an image was captured directly on to specially treated sheets of glass. As transport then was often by horse and cart on unpaved roads — not good for glass — this meant most of the early regional photography took place in a studio, or at best in town, not far from a studio.
Even then, if you wanted to share an image in the late 1800s, you could have multiple copies developed from an image, a time-consuming process until the early 19-aughts, when ways to mass produce images onto postcards came into existence and revolutionized this.
Alternatively, you could develop a copy onto a sheet of glass, and then use a projector to push the image onto a screen. These glass images, known as lantern slides, became something of a national phenomenon; presenters would travel around the country, speaking or playing music over “magic lantern” slide shows.
Among the many notables who came through Pullman were Edward S. Curtis, arguably the most noted ethnographic photographer of American Indians, and Roald Amundsen, who in 1913 shared lantern slides in Bryan Hall of his trip to the South Pole, just 16 months after becoming the first person to travel there.
More mundanely, lantern slides were used at the State College of Washington as instructional and promotional tools. As a result, many of our earliest existing photographs of the region are found on glass.
While WSU’s archives do hold a lantern slide projector, they’ve recently scanned one of their oldest local glass collections — 691 lantern slide images of campus and the community running from 1892 into the 1920s.
A very small number of these glass slides, just more than 50 in that set, are in color. However, those can be misleading, as they are not actually color photographs, but rather hand-tinted, or hand-painted, images.
In the middle of the 20th century, slide projectors (using film, not glass) became commonplace, and the much bulkier and more fragile lantern slides lost popularity. While in turn slide projectors were later replaced by digital presentations, much of our early 1900s history remains documented on those 3-by-4 inch pieces of glass.
These photos are a sampling of some of those 691 lantern slides.
Mark O’English is the university archivist at Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections.