The Morgan holds over 400 lantern slides by Edward Curtis, and nearly 300 lantern slides survive in other collections. About 280 Curtis lantern slides, which appear to be from the same series as the items at the Morgan, are held in private collections. The Getty Research Institute holds nineteen of these related lantern slides as well. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has lantern slides that feature Curtis’s photographs from the 1899 Harriman Expedition, a survey of the coast of Alaska.
When exactly this selection of lantern slides came to the Morgan library is unknown. The slides are not recorded in the 1930s sale of Curtis material to Boston rare book dealer Charles E. Lauriat; however, lantern slides are generally considered supplementary materials for presentations. For this reason, they may have been overlooked and not considered of any great importance.
The slides were originally stored in wooden boxes labeled by Curtis as “Lantern Slides E.S.C.” Inscriptions on the inside of the lids reveal that Curtis originally organized the slides by Native American tribe. At the Morgan, the Curtis slides were removed from their boxes and placed in a wooden storage cabinet (along with a large collection of lantern slides depicting Armenian manuscripts, as well as others made for Anne Tracy Morgan). In preparation for a major collection move in 2006, the lantern slides were removed from the slide storage cabinet and housed in archival boxes in order to transport them safely.
Likely during the early 1990s, the majority of the lantern slides were photographed in black and white. A set of copy prints compiled into a binder was made available to researchers in the Morgan’s Reading Room in order to limit handling of the fragile originals. In 1993, David Coleman completed a master’s thesis, “River and the Pool: Alternate Views of the North American Indian and Edward Sheriff Curtis’ Lantern Slides at the Pierpont Morgan Library,” with research based on these copy prints. His study offers a quantitative analysis of the subject matter depicted in Curtis’s photographs and is the largest study of the lantern slides prior to the Curtis lantern slide initiative that began in 2020. In 2006, at the time the slides were rehoused, the bulk of them were assigned accession numbers, and catalog records were created based on Coleman’s research data.