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The story of Merkelbach en Co.
Some humorous lantern slides for the little Princess.

In the Netherlands the name Merkelbach has always been inseparably associated with the magic lantern. The famous toyshop in Amsterdam sold not only the lanterns and lantern slides, but also manufactured them itself. One of its clients was a little princess, Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Source: Van Toverlantaarn tot Televisie. Een handvol herinneringen aan 125 jaar Merkelbach en Co. (From Magic Lantern to Television. A handful of memories of 125 years of Merkelbach & Co.), recorded by John Bakkers, published as a present to business relations on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the firm. (not available in the book shops)
The year is 1870. Edison has yet to invent the electric light bulb and it will still take another fifteen years before Siegfried Marcus drives from his workshop the most ridiculous looking contraption on wheels, which turns out to be the very first motor vehicle. In Amsterdam on December 12th, the official deed is sealed on the name change of the firm Merkelbach and Son, which becomes J.W. Merkelbach en Co., a limited partnership, based on the Kloveniersburgwal, “the purpose of which being the fabrication of and the conducting of trade in hard and soft soap". It soon appears that this Merkelbach's son, also bearing the initials J.W., is much less devoted to soap, dyes and haberdashery than his father. All sorts of strange novelties of modem technology attract his interest far, far more. Such as the ingenious magic lanterns used in giving entertaining "Lantern-lectures", and photography. The interest J.W. Merkelbach jr. takes in technique also attracts him to the great foreign exhibitions such as the Leipziger Messe, from which he returns, again and again, with fancy goods, which gradually change the character of his father's business. The technical toys form such a huge part of the assortment that the business is soon in need of more spacious premises. These are found on the corner of the Nieuwendijk at numbers 57 and 59, with a view of "The Bijenkorf Warehouse", still a simple shop at that time, on the opposite side of the road. Merkelbach is on good speaking terms with his neighbours and gives them as much assistance as he can. In exchange for this, he is offered founder's shares. The conservative Mister Merkelbach declines the offer, believing such a new-fashioned bumper-concern to be a far too hazardous a venture.
On the morning of January 1st, 1883, a mischievous boy throws a leftover firecracker into a fireworks container behind Merkelbach's shop door. The concern burns to the ground. Old grandmother Roelofs gets stuck in the narrow sky-light in her attempt to escape the flames by climbing onto the roof, and has to be sawn free by firemen. It is only after eight months that the shop can be reopened. We read in a newspaper article: "We were especially attracted to the department including models of machines, magic lanterns, optical instruments etc. You can see the very latest in related specialities. Magic lantern slides, of which a great variety is in stock, are displayed in unique fashion". Fireworks are not sold for some time to come.

Business booms. The following Merkelbach establishment arises therefore in premises on the Damrak, again with a view upon the Bijenkorf. Shops are opened in the Utrechtsestraat and the Leidsestraat. The technique is given more and more room on the Nieuwendijk. At the time Märklin is still producing locomotives that have to be pushed or pulled, a real working steam locomotive is shunting through Merkelbach's shop-window that was fabricated in his own workshop. And for the greatest miracle of these times, "photography", you can purchase all the necessary equipment at Merkelbach’s. Likewise for the development of your own films. The customers weren't always satisfied: one client complained he couldn't achieve the promised results, despite following the instructions to the letter, up until the use of the red lamp. It transpired however that he had been working with the curtains wide open and in broad daylight. Merkelbach keeps himself occupied for a time with the production of comical films and so called documentaries, which, as proper cinema's had not yet come into existence, were shown at fairs.

When the Niewendijk is no longer the dignified shopping-street it used to be,  the business moves to the Kalverstraat number 30. The fancy-goods of the old days have made way for steam machines, camera's, toy trains and..... magic lanterns. A number of metalwork machines are placed on the upper floor of the shop where instruments of natural science are manufactured. The Maagdenburg hemispheres and other such objects find their way into school classrooms. An important factor is the sale of magic lanterns. The firm has a special demonstration auditorium fitted for this purpose. The magic lanterns and lantern plates sold, were often manufactured by the firm itself, but magic lanterns made by other companies were sold under their own trade name.

The company had to withstand two world wars. W.L. Waltman, who is appointed as managing director in 1945, begins his assignment with almost nothing to start with, except ingenuity and perseverance. Roll films and steam machines change hands for cigarettes and bags of wheat and that wheat flour is exchanged in turn for a wonderful collection of toys at an old grocer in toys. Old biscuit tins are cut up and soldered into toy jeeps. Broken magic lantern slides are scraped and used to make the glass windscreens. A formidable success!

Little by little the company regains its pre-war outward appearance. There are even electric trains on display on the shelves. However, the boys who would like to buy them don't yet have the money to do so. Merkelbach makes a deal with the Wessels firm, traders in old paper. Paper is scarce and fetches good money. Whoever delivers old newspapers to Wessels receives a voucher instead of money. And anyone who has saved up seventy guilders worth of vouchers, can collect his electric train at Merkelbach's. Many a youngster spends weeks ransacking the attics of parents, family and friends for old paper. The trains soon disappear from the shelves.

On February 1st 1953, it was the turn of Merkelbach en Co. Ltd. to be honoured with the title  Royal Warrant Holder, as royal acknowledgement of long and honest businessmanship. An honorary order for which it was not necessary to really ever have been a supplier to the court. Nevertheless, Merkelbach can indeed boast of that. During the eighties of the century before, magic lantern slides were already being supplied to the court for the little princess Wilhelmina who possessed one of Merkelbach's lanterns. The letter of request has been in the safekeeping of the family and reads:

Royal Palace Het Loo, November 29. 1886

In compliance with the orders of His Majesty the King I have the honour to request that you, Dear Sir, set out for the Royal Palace Het Loo and announce yourself to His Majesty’s gunmaker Mister Overdijking, bringing along with you new painted slides with humorous pictures, suitable for young people, in order to exchange these for a certain number of painted slides belonging to the magic lantern, purchased by His Majesty from you in former days and now being the property of Her Royal Highness Princess Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Please, Dear Sir, be convinced of my deep respect,

The Second Secretary of His Majesty the King:

F. Trossarello (?)

(click on the letter to read the original, Dutch text.)

Wilhelmina as a five years old girl.

Merkelbach opens premises in Zandvoort in 1957 and in the Beethovenstraat in Amsterdam, a shop is opened which specialises in the sale of modern magic lanterns... television sets and video recorders. We have come full circle. From classic magic lantern with hand painted lantern views up to and including the modern television set, which can conjure up the whole scope of time and, with one flick of a switch and in natural colours, even outside our planet. From Magic Lantern to Television: Merkelbach & Co.
Toy magic lantern sold by Merkelbach under No. 498, with the two labels on top and on the inside of the accompanying wooden box.

This could have been the little Princess Wilhelmina's first magic lantern.

This page is dedicated to Terry Borton from the American Magic-Lantern Theatre, who showed great interest in the story about the little princess Wilhelmina in 'The miracle of the magic lantern.

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Last update: 23-05-2021.
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