Magic or Mayhem? Advertising in late-nineteenth century Sydney streets, discussed by curator, Sally Jackson (NFSA)

George Street, Sydney, c1880s

Magic lantern shows were not always conceived of as optical wonders. Indeed, in Sydney in the late nineteenth century, lantern projections were ridicled by prudish shop owners as insighting mayhem. 

On 3 October 1894 the Sydney Town Hall Clerk, received a letter of complaint and a petition. Addressed to the Mayor, Mr William P Manning, shopkeepers along George Street were frustrated by crowds blocking the entrance to their stores every night and preventing business. The cause? A lantern slide show, at the Haymarket end of George Street corner of Goulburn St. More precisely, on the upper external wall of 617 George Street, Mrs Stougle’s restaurant and Coffee Palace. The shopkeepers wanted the presentations stopped so their cash registers could ring.

The complaint and petition were sent by 6 businesses from the opposite side of the street. The presentation “by certain persons” they complained about consisted of advertisements and panoramic views.

The issue was referred to the Inspector of Nuisances who stated that as the “display consists of lime light pictures reflected upon the side of a building and from the fact of these being but mere fleeting shadows and unfixed advertisements etc. there is no law by which the exhibition may be dealt with.”

The matter was then referred to the Inspector General of Police who advised that all the police could do was patrol to prevent the footpath obstruction and then only between the hours of 7 and 10pm on Saturday nights.

There’s little doubt that this was not the result the petitioners had expected as the screenings would continue. It can only be hoped that they realised the benefit of advertising their own businesses on the wall of 617 George Street, Sydney. After all, the crowds outside their stores could then be enticed to enter and make purchases. Conceivably a happy ending for all.

Sally Jackson
NFSA Curator, Film (retired)

Updated:  3 September 2020/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications