Flash! Election Returns and the Stereopticon


Illustration, Atlanta Constitution Nov. 4, 1894, p.17 c.1-2

When I was doing a great deal of research using the Atlanta newspapers on microfilm many years ago, I stumbled upon articles, the first I had ever seen, related to Atlanta citizens gathering downtown to view election results — together — on a screen.

This interesting gathering was worth examining and thinking about – did other major cities in Georgia and elsewhere do this, too? Indeed they did!

The earliest examples I found for Georgia date 1892, and the latest date 1916. As early as 1882, Queen & Co. of Philadelphia was advertising their Magic Lanterns and Stereopticons for Public and Private Exhibitions in the Atlanta newspapers (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 21, 1882, p. 5 c. 4), but its use to display election returns did not happen for another decade.

After the October 1892 presidential election, The Washington Post congratulated the Atlanta Constitution on it a “Most Remarkable Feat of Achievement” for “its thorough collection of  [Georgia] election returns — for publication the morning after the election.” This feat:

involved the employment of a large number of special messengers who rode over the mountains and through the valleys that the returns from — remote places might be conveyed to the telegraph offices. — defying precedent in southern journalism. (Atlanta Constitution, Oct. 25, 1892 p.4 c.5)

But as far as I can determine, these election results were not displayed outdoors.

In November 1892 The Washington Post was flashing bulletins “upon a large canvas suspended in front of [their] building by means of a stereopticon on the night of the [presidential] election.” (Columbus Enquirer-Sun, November 20, 1892 p.3)

On November 9, 1892 in a Columbus Enquirer-Sun article (p. 5) titled “Waiting For The Returns” and subtitled “Unterrified by Rain and Mud The Good Democrats Gather,”  this new process of showing returns to the Columbus public was described.

By means of a powerful magic lantern, stereopticon views of the election returns were presented on a large screen, on the porch in front of the library. — A special wire was run from the instrument in the [newspaper] office into the library, —[the operator] received the news while several men prepared it for the public.

Two men from the newspaper staff “worked the stereopticon.”

Hundreds of Democrats stood in the middle of the street seemingly unconscious of the drenching rain and deep mud, yelling themselves hoarse when the returns were in Cleveland’s favor.

By 1894, Atlanta was enjoying its election returns via the stereopticon in what seems to be the first of its public showings using this equipment. In an article regarding “the control of the next congress,” subtitled “The Constitution’s Great Display  – of the news for the Benefit of the People,” (Atlanta Constitution Nov. 4, 1894 p. 17 c. 1-2; see illustration above),  they promised

to eclipse all former results in giving the election returns —- Tuesday night two powerful stereopticons will be put to work on the second floor of the Constitution building, reflecting the returns, as they come in from every state — on two immense canvases of the front wall of the building across the street. —– The result of the New York election will be shown on the canvas in front of the Constitution office almost as early as it will be reflected in front of the New York paper offices.

The management of the 1894 stereopticon  was in the charge of a Mr. Bosche who would “serve the returns in attractive and artistic style.” This may be R.C. Bosche  who, as R.C. Bosche& Co., advertised “House, Sign and Fresco Painting” in Atlanta in 1882 (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 21, 1882, p. 5 c. 4).


Illustration of J. B. Colt & Co.’s Criterian projection (magic) lantern (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 25, 1895 p.9 c.1)

In 1895, in an article “Powerful Lamps. The Way Election Returns Are Show. Seen At Great Distances,” an exhibitor at the Cotton States and International Exposition, the New York firm of J. B. Colt & Co. was discussed. They had demonstrated “the various possibilities  of their electric self-centering arc lamp in several fields.”



..the electric light stereopticon, equipped with the Colt automatic lamp, [is] the best, most economical and most comprehensive apparatus ever offered. Prominent among the uses — is outdoor advertising.

The very same construction —is the most perfect form for photo-engraving, studio photography, ….and other special lighting work.











A second illustration, to show “how the Criterion lanterns were used by The New York Times, to show election returns –” was also in the newspaper article.


Illustration of a screen used at the New York Times to display election results: four 20-foot discs and one in the center. (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 25, 1895 p.9 c.1)

A forty-foot screen was suspended in front of the Times building, facing Printing House Square. In front of the Franklin statue a platform was built to accommodate operating of lanterns. The screen allowed four twenty-feet discs, and a smaller one in the center…..so brilliantly lighted by the Cole electric light lanterns…that the crowd, — as far back at the Brooklyn Bridge entrance, could read distinctly every bulletin… (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 25, 1895 p.9 c.1)

In 1896 the Atlanta Constitution used two stereopticons again, this time to display presidential election results, to “be kept busy until daylight comes.”  A wonderful illustration was used across the article showing the side by side stereopticons as they were to display the “double election bulletins.”


Illustration by Ernest Wilkinson of the two stereopticons used to display presidential election results. Atlanta Constitution Nov. 1, 1896 p. 17

The 1896 presidential election returns were also displayed for the public by the Macon Telegraph.

A large sheet, about fifteen yards wide, will be put up in the park in front of the Telegraph [building] and the returns will be thrown on the sheet with a stereopticon lantern — The services of Professor [W.B.] Bonnell of Weslyan [College] have been secured to assist in the stereopticon display. — He will give the returns in large figures of living light on a dark background , which will be plainly read by the thousands. (Macon Telegraph, Nov. 3, 1896, p. 6 c. 4)

In 1904, Columbus citizens were still seeing its presidential election returns displayed by the Enquirer-Sun. That year, the Johnston & Burson Stere-optigraph Company had charge of the “mechanical feature of the display.” The company also exhibited “many entertaining moving pictures.” Although the final sentence of the notice is that  “Ladies who are interested in the election returns are invited to attend,” it seems that the entertaining moving pictures would be for the women because they were not allowed to vote! (Columbus Enquirer-Sun, Nov. 6, 1904, part 2, p. 9)

Both Macon and Augusta also used the stereopticon to display election results that year. It became common knowledge that the telegraph played a major role in making the stereopticon relevant for election returns display.

The Associated Press shared returns from around the country with the Augusta Chronicle office which would then be

immediately flashed on the great canvas in front of the Chronicle office by a powerful stereopticon for the benefit of the people…..The bulletins of the Western Union Telegraph company will also be displayed on the Chronicle canvas.  [those far away could] get an idea of the returns by wiring the Chronicle for a message. (Augusta Chronicle, Nov. 8, 1904 p. 1)

At the close of the 1906 state elections, the Chronicle again displayed the returns in front of  their office. The returns would be “flashed” to their office from “special correspondents” and immediately “thrown upon the canvas.”

By the primaries of 1908, the Atlanta Georgian began to compete with the Constitution with their own

special telegraph line and two telephones at our stereopticon on Peachtree and Marietta….This wire goes to 438 cities and towns in Georgia — reliable news the instant it is put on the wire.  — over 300 of our own correspondents will send us special telegrams, and in less than a minute — we will give it to you with the stereopticon. — Rent a chair or bring something to sit on — Just a plain newspaper giving the facts. (Atlanta Georgian June 4, 1908, p.1)

The  Georgian advertised an event to see the 1908 presidential  election returns to be held “at the usual place, corner of Edgewood Ave., Marietta and Peachtree streets.” This time they stated that

Probably no newspaper ever arranged a more perfect service for gathering quickly and completely the returns of a national election and apprising the public of the news while it is red-hot off the wires.

The three great news gatherers of America — the Postal, the Western Union and the Southern Bell — have all been engaged, and their entire systems …..will all be devoted on Tuesday to securing election news for the Georgian’s stereopticon. (Atlanta Georgian, Oct. 29, 1908, p. 7)

For the gubernatorial election of 1910, the Columbus Enquirer-Sun changed their method and subtitled their “Election Returns” article with “Man Will Announce Returns Through Megaphone as Rapidly as Received–Quicker Service Than the Stereopticon.”

This will be quicker than the stereopticon or the magic lantern proves because the returns can be handed to the man and he can read them off long before they can be transcribed upon the plates and placed in the machine. — come …hear the news. It doesn’t matter… whether you are a Hoke Smith man or a Joe Brown man, or whether you live in Alabama or South Carolina, come and welcome. — about 7 o’clock the man with the megaphone and the loud voice will at once begin announcing… (Columbus Enquirer-Sun Aug. 21, 1910, p. 16)

It appears that the megaphone did not go over that well. On November 3, 1912 (p. 8), the Columbus Enquirer-Sun “arranged to display [presidential election] returns by flash light…an expert telegrapher will take the election returns and …..they will immediately be displayed by stereopticon on the big screen in front of [their] office.”

Earlier in the year, in May 1912, the Atlanta Constitution flashed the returns at Five Points “to inform Atlantans whether Georgia instructs her delegation for Underwood of Alabama, for president, or for Wilson of New Jersey…let them know who will serve them as county commissioners, …ordinary, and …other positions.” (Atlanta Constitution, May 1, 1912 p.1).


Illustration, probably by Henderson, for article [Atlanta] “Constitution will Flash Returns at Five Points; Room for 20,000 …” (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 3, 1912 p. 1B)

On November 3, the returns were “flashed” in the same place, and according to the headline, there was “Room for 20,000.” (They note that “more than 15,000 people saw the results of the recent mayor’s race” which they had flashed at Five Points). These people would be

accommodated on the Five Points plaza and intersecting streets were they can get an obstructed view of the big screen – and there is always room for one more! — many will be on hand with drums and horns and lusty lungs to give the news the proper reception. Don’t miss it – it will be the event of a lifetime!

The entire service from all parts of the United States direct to The Constitution’s stereopticon operators — has been perfected in detail….Everybody you know will be there! (Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 3, 1912 p. 1B)

In September 1916, Columbus citizens saw returns for the the gubernatorial race primary (Dorset vs. Harris and Hardman; Dorsey won), as well as for local elections, all flashed by the Enquirer-Sun’s “special leased wire and stereopticon outfit.”(Columbus Enquirer-Sun, Sept. 13, 1916 p.3).

In Augusta the 1916 national election returns were “flashed from The Chronicle Building on Broad Street.” They had “two special wires installed … opposite the monument and a screen will be placed out in front…[because] the Chronicle believes in serving the public most faithful and fully [and are] sparing no expense…for this splendid service.” (Augusta Chronicle, Nov. 1, 1916, p. 6)

In Macon the 1916 election returns were flashed in front of the Telegraph and News buildings for two nights to “thousands of Macon people,” because they thought it “was the closest presidential election in the history of the country” and it was the “first time the returns were flashed on the screen two successive nights.”

Four men were kept busy on the phones of each of the two papers giving the public the latest. — Cherry street, between Third and Fourth streets, was crowded from curb to curb…. the men in charge of the screen flashed pictures of the various candidates, cartoons taken from different papers, and witty “stabs” at local officials who will lose out if Wilson is defeated. — When the returns…last night showed that Wilson was in the lead in California, for the first time in the day a mighty cheer went up. (Macon Telegraph, Nov. 9, 1916, p. 2)

If this intriguing subject interests you, a related book was recently published: Politicking and Emergent Media: US Presidential Elections of the 1890s (University of California Press, Sept. 2016) written by historian Charles Musser. The book’s publisher has written that:

Charles Musser looks at four US presidential campaigns during the long 1890s (1888–1900) as Republicans and Democrats deployed a variety of media forms to promote their candidates and platforms.

….the city’s leading daily newspapers were mostly Democratic as the decade began, [but] Republicans — using the stereopticon (a modernized magic lantern)…. developed the first campaign documentaries. Soon they were exploiting motion pictures, the phonograph, and telephone in surprising and often successful ways.

I think the use of the stereopticon to bring everyone together outdoors and make it a community event is a great idea!  It is a shame that today it would be impossible.

Until next time, keep Hunting and Gathering and Voting!

© E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without  written permission from this blog’s author is prohibited. The piece can be re-blogged, and excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I was amazed that they were able to flash the results up on large screens in the late 1800s.

  2. Thanks for reading! I was surprised by this phenomenon, too, and had been waiting for a good time to use it!

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