Munitionettes and Magic Lantern Slides

Figure 1: Punch 27th March 1918, p.208

I have started to add glass lantern slides to my collection because of the clarity of the photograph, which has been transferred onto the glass slide. Initially the materiality of the object was not my focus but once my first slides were delivered I questioned why such objects existed, what were they used for, how were the images on the slides disseminated, engaged with, what was the original market or even the manufacturing process. I now have 9 in my collection all relating to First World War female munition workers. This Blog will discuss my findings as to the scenes depicted on the slides and the reasons for their existence. I had always assumed that Magic Lanterns were a Victorian phenomenon, something that historian Joss Marsh has documented, arguing that although ‘its popularity peaked in Britain around 1805…. it died out as a headlining popular entertainment in the 1830s…’ but it was still a form of entertainment into the 1920s coinciding with the growth of cinema.[1] With this in mind these glass slides are not unusual.

Figure 2: An example of a British Magic Lantern date unknown.

The History of Magic Lanterns

According to the Magic Lantern Society a magic lantern was ‘part of a marvellous world of optical projection’.[2] The Society maintains that the origins of projecting images goes back hundreds of thousands of years but for the purposes of this blog I will be concerned with the First World War and the specific slides in my collection. The Magic Lantern Society has a brief history of the magic lantern claiming that the trade was vibrant in the late 1870s and 1880s. According to the website in this period there were over 30 companies producing lanterns and slides in London alone. These companies included Carpenter & Westley, York & Son, Newton & Co. and James Bamforth. While the cinema may have overtaken the magic lantern for public entertainment, according to the society, lantern shows continued to disseminate education and religious instruction. ‘From the 1900s onwards many of the smaller family lantern or slide businesses disappeared or were amalgamated with larger firms, but there were still lantern and slide suppliers trading until after the Second World War.’[3] Searching through Punch I came across an ‘advertisement’ offering the services of a magic lantern, slides and an operator in 1920.

Figure 3 Punch 28th January 1920 p.7

According to the informative 1898 book, The Magic Lantern written by J. A. Manton, the President of the Sheffield Lantern Society: ‘The optical lantern is simply a modified form of microscope whose function is to project on to a suitable surface an enlarged image…the size of the picture being limited only by the size of the room.’[4] This fascinating book details the mechanics of the magic lantern, the recommended ways of illumination and includes detailed drawings. A magic lantern contained a luminant (light), 2 optical lenses to magnify the image and a sliding cradle to hold the glass slide. The diagram (Figure 4) from the book displays the principle of the projection with the light (L) shining through 2 convex lenses (C), the refracted light is then transmitted through the picture, to come together at F where the image is shown on the screen.

Figure 4: Manton, J.A, The Magic Lantern. London: Iliffe, Sons & Sturmey Ltd. 1898, p.10

Manton explained two ways to create photographic slides for the keen enthusiast, which were either by reduction or contact. Having read Manton’s description and closely examined my slides I am able to deduce that they were produced by the ‘Reduction’ technique. Manton describes this process as follows:

the negative is again photographed on a reduced scale, and the resulting picture, when washed and dried, is masked and framed……by a piece of opaque paper, and then protected from injury by a cover-glass of exactly the same dimensions.[5]

Object Analysis

Women’s work was discussed nationally in many forms such as newspaper articles, films, cartoons and on postcards, to name a few formats. Thus, the dissemination of the contribution of women to the war effort in the form of Magic Lantern talks was not unusual. However, what struck me is the contradiction between this ‘old-fashioned’ medium and the modernity of First World War warfare and the appearance of women in their ‘modern’ workwear that was depicted on the slides.

The N.W.S.C

Interestingly, each of these slides have a hand-written descriptive sentence in white ink explaining the scene depicted and at the top (again in white ink) is the sentence ‘NWSC Women’s Work). I was intrigued by these initials and originally expected them to be representative of a women’s political organisation, perhaps with roots in the Suffrage movement. But I could not find any evidence for this. In the end I Googled these initials and found that they represented the ‘National War Savings Committee’. At first, I was sceptical about this result. I decided to research the British Library’s online Newspaper Archive to see if there were any advertisements for magic lantern talks to see if this approach would help in determining the meaning of the initialism N.W.S.C. Some of the photographs shown on the slides I recognised from the collection held in the archives of the IWM. These were taken by the Horace Nicholls, who was the official Government photographer tasked with touring the country recording the work being carried out for the war. I was intrigued as to how these ‘official’ photographs had found their way onto these commercial items, convinced as I was that the initials N.W.S.C was some form of national women’s organisation. The search of the newspaper archive resulted in finding a notice in the Burnley News Saturday 19th October 1918 which announced the following:

Figure 5: Burnley News Saturday 19th October 1918

Having seen this notice the perplexing question behind the meaning of these initials and the purpose of these slides was clear. The Government had allowed the photographs taken by Horace Nicholls to be used to facilitate raising funds for the war effort. How much money was raised by the sale of these slides is something that perhaps may never be known.

The Slides

The slides are 3mm thick glass, measuring 8.1cm square and weigh 49 grams each. The edges are protected with black papery tape. The image has a black tissue like paper border glued onto one side of the slide which is then protected by another glass slide. One corner of each slide has a label stuck diagonally across the slide that it is slightly hidden by the border tape. By carefully peeling back some of the tape (Figure 6) the writing on the label is revealed as ‘Maker Newton & Co 37, King St Covent Garden London’ (one of the main manufacturers mentioned by the Magic Lantern Society). On each on the slides there is also a circular numbered sticker indicating that there was an order to the slides, or that they were part of a series. I now own numbers 43, 44, 45, 47, 49, 52, 53, 54 and 57.

Figure 6: Author’s own glass slide showing the labels and notations

Slide 43 (Figure 7) was taken inside a factory. The notation reads ‘making fuses’. In the foreground a long workbench is divided into 2 by a long piece of wood across the length of the workbench. The end of the workbench has 2 metal numbers nailed to it – a number 9 and 10. The workbench has two different processes being carried out by 10 women seated each side. The group of women sat on the left appear to be packing the fuses into boxes. On the other side of the workbench are operating some sort of drilling machines. Once they have filled a box of the fuses, they are set in the middle of the table for the women on the other side to continue with the process. Looking closely at the picture this division of workstations and procedures is repeated throughout the factory as can be seen by the pulleys and straps that stretch up to the ceiling and which drive the motors for the machinery.

Figure 7: Slide 43 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 44 (Figure 8) features two women working on a Condenser Tube, according to the description. The inside of the factory shows just how little consideration was given to health and safety as we know it today. The women are sat on make-shift seating comprising of two piles of stones, or perhaps wood, with two planks of wood stretching from one pile to the other. The female munition workers sit on the planks of wood and are possibly screwing or tightening nuts on the tube unit. Both women wear mob caps and blouses underneath their overalls. From the angle of the photograph, we cannot see whether these women are wearing trousers or long gowned overalls over everyday clothing.

Figure 8: Slide 44 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 45 (Figure 9) is titled milling machine is one example of where these images were used in other forms. This slide shows a female munition worker using a milling machine. She wears dark coloured overalls and a striped mob cap. She appears to be wearing a broach at the neckline of her overall. The most striking element of this photograph is the lack of personal protection the woman wears considering her work exposes her to sharp pieces of metal. The IWM Sound Archives hold oral testimonies of the injuries sustained by the workers, including metal filings becoming embedded in workers’ eyes, or injuries to hands etc.[6] Figure 10 shows how this same image was disseminated across other media and publications.

Figure 9: Slide 45 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide
Figure 10: The Graphic, 19th February 1916 p.253 Author’s own collection

Slide 47 (Figure 11) features two women ‘testing mines’, as described on the slide. One of the women is obscured by the large spherical mine so we are unable to see any of her clothing. The woman in the forefront is tightening 1 of 4 nuts on the side of the mine with a spanner. (Incidentally on a visit to the archives held at Loughborough University, I was able to examine a spanner used by trainee munition workers at the technical school and was surprised by the weight of this heavy metal tool.) The way in which this woman holds the spanner conveys the weight of the instrument but also the strength in her arms, wrists and hands. Her workwear appears to comprise of a tunic under which she is perhaps wearing trousers, but as the condition of the photograph has deteriorated in the corners it is hard to ascertain whether she is wearing boots or puttees, a form of bandage used to prevent any excess fabric catching in machinery. The mine itself appears to be resting on rails, held in place by planks of wood and a gauge at protruding from the top displays the pressure. Again, the scene demonstrates through the women’s clothing and the working environment, the industrial and dirty nature of the work.

Figure 11: Slide 47 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 49 (Figure 12) ‘Ship Building’ is the clearest of all the slides I own. It was taken in a dockyard in front of a partially built warship surrounded in scaffolding. The forefront of the picture is filled with what I thought to be lines of piled planks of wood, which are being picked up and moved by 4 women. The same image was printed in the Illustrated London News, 10th June 1916, (Figure 13) captioned as ‘handling long steel bars’. Three of the women furthest away from the camera wear dark mob cabs, trousers and tunics, under which light coloured blouses can be seen. To the left of these women another lady, on her own, carrying the majority of the weight of the steel bar. She wears a very light outfit, that may have been off white or pale blue in colour, which would have signified her superior position (possibly a supervisor). Again, she wears a mob cap, trousers and tunic and blouse underneath. The background, not surprisingly for an industrial port, is filled with other industrial buildings. There appears to be a small crowd of either of workers or visiting dignitaries, some women visible in the crowd, wear large-brimmed hats, as was the fashion for more mature, upper-class women. During the war factories received visitors, whether army officials, other factory managers, politicians and royalty and these visits were recorded for a variety of reasons; company records, the country’s morale and propaganda. This was the third slide I purchased because I recognised the image as being one taken by Horace Nicholls and in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. Originally this slice had confused me slightly, as I could not understand how this image being part of the Government’s official record of the war, had transformed into a commercial object.

Figure 12: Slide 49 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide
Figure 13: Illustrated London News, 10th June 1916, p.8

Slide 52 (Figure 14) ‘Police Corps. On duty in Munition Works’ shows munition workers lined up alongside a single gauge railway track that snakes its way into the distance. The women are wearing heavy, thick tunics and trousers that look extremely similar to those worn at the Gretna factory. A policewoman is inspecting and tidying one of the girl’s outfit and I suspect the reason the women are on parade is that the King and Queen were visiting the factory. Figure 15 is taken from a book I acquired on a visit to the Devil’s Porridge Archives, Gretna. It shows the King touring the extensive factory complex, which stretched over 9 miles from Dornock, Scotland to Mossband, England.

Figure 14: Slide 52 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide
Figure 15: ‘The Royal Party greeted by Munitions Girls at Gaillard Towers, Dornock’. Routledge, Gordon. L. Miracles and Munitions. Longtown, Cumbria: Arthuret, 2003, p.41

Slide 53 (Figure 16) is labelled ‘Railway Carriage Cleaners’. Twenty-four women either standing on the track outside a railway carriage, on ladders or inside in the process of cleaning the windows or the inside compartment. All of the women are wearing tunics, trousers and mob caps. The colour seems to be uniform, but a couple of women do appear to be wearing a darker shade of workwear and are perhaps the supervisors.

Figure 16: Slide 53 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slide 54 (Figure 17) is this time labelled as ‘N.W.S.C Navy’ and ‘munition works’. In the forefront a female munition worker sits with her back to the camera on a vehicle, seemingly on a track that moves the heavier shells and munitions around the factory. On her left women are tightening the tops of the shells, which one assumes will be then lifted onto the empty racks for transportation. A large notice is attached to a pillar that reads Smoking is strictly prohibited in the shell filling factory. If any worker was found to be smoking, they faced instant dismissal. The women wear all-in-one boiler suits which we can see from the seated worker are fastened down the back with buttons. The woman driver also wears a blouse out, over her workwear, perhaps to look ‘nice’ for the photograph, or this may have been how the women liked to feminise their workwear.

Figure 17: Slide 54 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

Slice 57 (Figure 18) the final slide in the collection, thus far, has the actual location of the factory, unlike the others, probably because it depicts the canteen and not any of the ammunition making processes. The picture is of a large group of women workers in the Woolwich Canteen. All the women pictured are on a break during their shifts and are wearing their overalls and mobcaps. The garments show the traces of their dirty, greasy work and the variation in the colours, signifying the supervisory roles, can also be seen. Many of the women’s overalls have different coloured sleeves to the body of the overall or ‘gown’ as it was referred to by A. K. Foxwell in her book Munition Lasses.[7]

Figure 18: Slide 57 – Author’s own Magic Lantern Slide

The main reason behind the purchases of these slides was for the clarity of the image, but it has shown me another nuanced way in which the work of munition workers was disseminated during the conflict. The convergence of these images of the modern means of production for a war that necessitated a modern approach to established methods of warfare, the unusual-dressed appearance of women to carry out roles in previously male only occupations and the old-fashioned method of projection is striking.

[1] Foxwell, A. K. Munitions Lasses, Six Months as Principal Overlooker in Danger Buildings. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1917. Print


[3] Ibid p.60

[4] Manton, J.A, The Magic Lantern. London: Iliffe, Sons & Sturmey Ltd. 1898, p.9



7] Marsh, Joss, “Dickensian ‘Dissolving Views’: The Magic Lantern, Visual Story-Telling, and the Victorian Technological Innovation”, Comparative Critical Studies: 6:3. pp 333-346. p. 334

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