Johnson-Disney Film Strip Projector

From the late 1940s and for several years during the 1950s, Johnsons sold a 4.5volt battery powered toy projector that showed stationary film strip images based upon Walt Disney characters.

The version of the projector shown in the advertisement below, taken from an undated Johnsons catalogue but believed to date from 1952 or 1953, is seemingly the 3rd version of this projector. Earlier versions had the switch located on the front plate of the projector body and in the earliest version the projector body also had a metal handle. This suggests the Disney projector was on sale for several years prior to this catalogue publication and recent (September 2020) research by Gavin Ritchie found its origins can be traced back to post World War II from Johnsons, and even the late 1930s from Ensign Ltd.


Notice that there is no film strip No.53 in the above list, but an e-correspondent in early 2011 told me that she owned that film and it was entitled "Mickey the Magician",
presumably in the role of the Sorcerer's Apprentice (composed by Paul Dukas )

Gavin Ritchie has accumulated information on this toy projector from various websites.

The Luikerwaal website contains a fascinating history of magic lanterns. This site page tells us:
"Probably the most sold Flashlight Magic Lantern is The Mickey Mouse Toy Lantern, 'made by special arrangement with Walt Disney', by Ensign Limited, London W.C.1 (patent number 21309), in the late 1930s".

Gavin also found an extract from the book "Disneyana Walt Disney Collectibles" by Cecil Munsey (1974). Chapter 6 tells us:

6. Walt's Representative in London
In June 1930, William Banks Levy - already in England managing Powers Cinephone (which had recorded "Steamboat Willie" in New York), was tapped by Walt to be his representative. This was at the time when Mickey Mouse cartoons were beginning to become very popular not only in this country (USA) but in others. To Walt, England seemed to be the logical country in which to have a representative to protect the Disney interests.

Levy had been in England representing Disney for only a few weeks when he began receiving inquiries about the possibilities of using Mickey Mouse on character merchandise. The interest in England closely followed Walt's and older brother Roy's recognition of character merchandising as a possible adjunct to their film business in the United States.

On June 17th, 1930, Levy received a power of attorney from Walt that authorized Levy to license manufacturers to produce merchandise featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Levy's official merchandising began five months after that of George Borgfeldt & Co. Unlike Borgfeldt, however, Levy was ready to quickly launch into the character merchandising business. He had accumulated all the paperwork associated with the many enquiries that had come in, and he quickly met and made deals with many of the firms represented. By September 14th, 1930, he bad twenty-eight licensees signed.

Needless to say, both Walt and Roy were pleased with William Levy's achievements. Levy's first contract was with Fred Butcher of a projection apparatus firm called Johnsons of Hendon Ltd 
* . Butcher suggested that, from selected illustrations already in existence, a series of Walt Disney stories could be printed on cellophane strips and sold with toy lanterns. The resulting product consisted of a battery-operated lantern with pictures mounted in groups of four between glass. This successful novelty has become a collector's item today.

* Throughout the 1930s and until late 1940, Fred Butcher was working at Ensign Ltd. Also at that time, the other company referred to was named Johnson and Sons, not Johnsons of Hendon.

During the nights of 24th/25th September 1940, during World War 2, the company of Ensign Ltd (the sales 'wing' of Houghton Butcher; founded in 1834) was destroyed by enemy bombing. On October 7th, Ensign Ltd was wound up and the remaining stock of enlargers, epidiascopes and cine cameras was taken over by Johnson & Sons. Stanley Houghton, previously the General Manager of Ensign and Fred Butcher, the Technical Director, together with other members of staff, joined Johnson and Sons (located in Hendon but without Hendon being part of their name until 1946). Thereafter, Johnsons continued to supply the services and equipment previously provided by Ensign Ltd.

After World War II, the Johnson Disney Toy Projection Lantern (as its name became) was modified to carry filmstrips of twenty-four pictures instead of slides.

Thanks to a donation by Keith Cutting of a Mark 1 version in need of repair, and to Gavin Ritchie for his repair skills, the Mark 1, with its top front mounted on/off light switch and folding wire handle, can be seen below. Some of the notes that Gavin made of how the repair was effected, are available to view here.

The earlier (late 1930s) Ensign version was much as the Mark 1 from Johnsons, but also had a wire hanging bracket, which was unlikely to be useful for projection but may have simply been a feature of the hand-held torch on which the design was based. The Ensign lantern also had a 'slip in' metal base to stabilise the torch unit and hold the whole thing horizontal during use. This became unnecessary with the Johnsons design due to it having two metal 'legs' below the film 'gate'.



Complete with a film strip in place for projection, on the wooden hand winding rollers.
Notice the two metal legs below the film 'gate' that support and level the projector.
The donation from Keith Cutting came with a box of 6 individually boxed film strips, this being Series 49.  


The instruction booklet for the Mark 1 can either be viewed as individual pages below, or downloaded as a pdf, here.

Page 3 advises "MAKING THE PICTURE SHARP (FOCUSING). To get the picture sharp and clear on the screen, pull the front lens well out, then push it in slowly until the picture is quite sharply defined. The Lantern has a first-class lens system and the pictures should be dead sharp to the corners.


Further notes from Gavin read:  

I have seen two boxes (on websites specialising in these items) in which the Mark 1 version was sold. The first of these refers to Johnsons of Hendon (see left hand side, below), while the later refers to Johnsons of Hendon Ltd. (see right hand side, below). It was in 1948 that Johnson and Sons, Manufacturing Chemists Limited, changed its name to Johnsons of Hendon Limited, so this second box design (right hand side, below) was introduced on or after that date. According to the Science Museum Group website, 'Johnsons of Hendon' was used in advertising for two years before the company changed its name to Johnsons of Hendon Limited. It is likely therefore that the first of these box designs (left hand side, below) dates around 1946 to 1948. Since the instruction leaflet above also refers to simply "Johnsons of Hendon", it is likely that the Mark 1 design shown above, also pre-dates 1948.

Note also that in these years the name of the instrument changed from 'Lantern' to 'Projector'. Presumably 'Lantern' was by then an outdated term reminiscent of the 'magic lanterns' used to project glass slides from Victorian times until the 1930's, whilst the 'new' 35mm slides were being shown using projectors.

The Disney projector is also described in detail on Patrice Guérin's website. The colour images, below, belong to Patrice.


This page last updated: 2nd October 2020 (previously 1st March 2013)