Brittingham Family Lantern Slide Collection

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This collection consists of the personal and travel photographs of the Brittinghams, a prominent and influential Wisconsin family. Spanning the years 1897-1922, these images capture the private lives of a wealthy family at the turn of the century, and document their travels to 22 states and 32 countries.

The subjects of this collection range widely from informal pictures of children at play to detailed interior shots of the Brittingham homes. Scenic landscapes, cityscapes, and street scenes from around the world are in abundance. The Brittinghams traveled from the Grand Canyon to Eastern Asia, and everywhere captured particulars of dress, architecture, and locomotion.

During the late 1800s photography was radically simplified by the invention of dry gelatin plates, which could be mass produced and which eliminated the need for a tripod. These circumstances paved the way for the handheld camera, which sparked a widespread photography craze. The Brittinghams, who had both money and leisure time in abundance, were perfectly situated to become amateur photographers. It is not clear what kind of camera the Brittinghams used, but the existence of both glass and film negatives suggest there was more than one.

To read more about the Brittingham family, visit the UW-Madison Archives History and Exhibits page.

Collection Background

In 1955, Margaret Brittingham Reid and Thomas Brittingham, Jr. donated the Brittingham family home, fully furnished, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (it currently serves as the official residence of the UW System President). Thirteen years later, several wooden boxes containing 1,847 lantern slides and several film and glass plate negatives were discovered in the attic. The trustees of the Brittingham family estate agreed to donate the entire collection to the University of Wisconsin. Today the collection contains 1,845 slides; two have been lost over the years. 1,620 of those images have been digitized for this online collection.

Aside from three glass plate negatives, all of the digital images in this collection were scanned from lantern slides. Lantern slides were a popular way to view and share photographs in the 1800s and early 1900s. Created from negatives, the slides are positive images enclosed between two plates of glass. They were positioned in front of a light source in handheld viewers or special projectors (whose predecessors were called “magic lanterns”) that projected the image onto a wall or other surface. The lantern slides in this collection can be divided into two groups. The first group, which encompasses the majority of the collection, consists of slides measuring 3.25 in. x 4 in. They were created from negatives taken by the family, usually one of the senior Brittinghams.

Nearly all of these images are framed by a paper border, upon which one of the Brittinghams recorded the date, location, title, and, on occasion, the photographer. A few titles containing objectionable descriptions or remarks that reflect the prejudices of the Brittinghams’ day have been altered. Variation in the size of the digital images is due to differences in the widths of these borders.

The second group in this collection consists of 130 slides, each measuring 3.25 square inches, a format that was more common in Europe and Asia. These slides were created from professional photographs and were most likely purchased by the Brittinghams during their travels abroad. Many of these commercial slides, especially those from Japan, have been hand-painted; the paint was applied directly to the black and white image. Although hand-painted images were common during this period, only two of the Brittingham’s personal slides were painted.

The Brittingham lantern slide collection is currently housed in the photography collection of the UW-Madison Archives, located in Steenbock Library.


Digitization of the Brittingham lantern slides was made possible by generous support from the General Library System and the University’s Brittingham Fund.