The lantern slide tourist, week 2: local people

Julie Greenhill
Friday 14 May 2021

In the second week of our armchair-travels through the lantern slides of the General Rollo Collection we continue our virtual tours among the ordinary people of Europe and North America.

The collection consists of the expected images of an early-20th century traveller: some topographic photographs, views of tourist sights and of fashionable spots abroad. These are generally typical mass-produced commercial lantern slide sets made by photographic studios for sale and are dominated by some pretty standard views. However, where the General Rollo Collection differs from the usual views of a genteel tourist and leisure traveller, is in the portrayal of local people, their traditions and their way of life. Perhaps some of these were produced by professional studios, but they could just as easy have been amateur ‘snapshots’ taken during continental travels.

For instance, in capturing these women washing their linen by the river, the photographer portrayed a scene not uncommon during the first half of the 20th century in the south of Europe. The women, getting their legs into the stream, usually freezing cold, submerged their clothes in the water and then rubbed them against rocks by the side of the river. In a very uncharacteristic fashion for early photographs, but becoming more widely seen as the medium developed over the latter half of the century, the women portrayed here smile to the camera, welcoming the viewer to their world and probably giggling about the foreign clothes and the unfamiliar countenance of the photographer. The slide includes hand-painted blouses and headscarves, of vivid colours that contrast with the soft blue hues of the laundered clothes. This contributes to the animated scene and represents these women as happy and content with their chores and surroundings.

In the same trip to the French Pyrenees the photographer also captured another ‘snapshot’ of women, this time filling jars of water from a fountain.

These women are of three distinct generations, perhaps from the same family; a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter working together to bring water back to the family home. The colours in the women’s clothes, together with the greyness of the cobblestones and of the wall in the background, give a feeling of cold and chillness in the air, and captures a sensation that, through this photograph, has lasted more than 100 years.

Our travels now bring us 4,000 miles away, to North America. The photographer took this photo of three children, an image that might evoke recollections of Tom Sawyer, Joe Harper and Huckleberry Finn on Jackson’s Island.

Likely collected on the same trip, the General Rollo Collection also holds images portraying First Nations families, like the one in the following photograph. It is unclear if this lantern slide was purchased as a single image to add to the collection. At this time in North America, it may have been difficult for tourists to gain personal or intimate access to First Nations to produce such a portrait. The granular nature of the image itself (use the zoom function to gain a better view here), contracts greatly to the other images seen in this series. This suggests the photograph was likely taken from another printed medium rather than from life.

In this beautiful image, the family is portrayed in traditional dress with the children wearing feathered headdresses. The little one reaches her hand towards the camera, as many children do still today when posing for a photograph.

When depicting families however, the photographer was ahead of his time. For instance, the next photographs, taken in the south of Spain, may remind us of images seen during the recent periods of mobility restrictions: the doorstep photoshoot.

These families are taking a pause from their chores and daily activities to pose for the photograph. In the collection, however, there are also images of people at work, whether making traditional crafts or working in town and city maintenance.

The woman in this photograph is using a traditional Swiss pillow and wooden bobbins to produce an intricate pattern in lace. The setting appears to be that of a shop, museum or tourist attraction with images pinned to a board in the background which may also be for sale. The lacemaker has bundles of fine lace edgings placed on the pillow and hanging over edge, setting up a display of her creations.

Perhaps a more physically demanding job, this photograph shows a street sweeper at work in New York City with a broom and a wheeled bin. The dark clothes of the pedestrian contrast with the whiteness of the sanitation worker’s kit. This uniform was chosen by the city of New York to represent hygiene and authority which gave the sweepers the nickname of “White Wings”.

Our travelling photographer was not only interested in portraying common people, but also other aspects of the culture, habits or geography of the places they visited.

During their trip to Canada and the United States, for instance, the photographer took notes of strange and funny advertisements that they came across on their travels.

The previous image is an example of the multi-functional use for lantern slides beyond photographs. They were also used for public lectures, for lessons and for entertainment. Notes could be written, then photographed and the resulting slide would be inserted at a timely point of the lantern slide lecture to illustrate the show with relevant text.

The next slide, also possibly intended for a lecture, shows the calculations that the traveller made when visiting the Niagara Falls, relating it to life back home in Scotland by way of making their point.

Their interest in local culture is shown in the following image, where the photographer wrote a list of the school subjects for a ten-year-old Spanish boy in 1906.

The next slide is an interesting hand-drawn comparison between the relative sizes of the British Isles archipelago and the Iberian Peninsula, together with a table comparing area and population of Great Britain and Spain.

In this blog post we have explored the photographer’s interest in portraying local people and the culture and geography of the visited areas. Next week we will continue exploring the General Rollo Collection, focusing our attention on another sort of ‘locals’ that our intrepid photographer enjoyed photographing.


Pilar Gil
Cataloguing and Documentation Officer

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