Toy Theaters: 19th Century Home Entertainment

Basia Nosek displays a 19th century shadow box animation toy. Conservation Division. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Dashing heroes, evil bandits, high drama and adventure. Toy theaters, beloved playthings of the 19th century, offered all these. Charles Dickens staged productions with them in his living room. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an ode to them. And a 14-year-old Winston Churchill was said to vault over the counter of a local stationer’s to grab the latest title.

Long before Netflix or video games, these tiny paper theaters served as home entertainment, outlets for imagination crafted for young people but popular with adults, too.

The Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division has dozens of the miniature theaters, many in colorful boxes containing magical characters and intricate scenes from the past. Over the past few years, Library paper conservators have been painstakingly mending damage caused by historical use, making sure researchers can draw insights from the theaters for years to come.

For “a penny plain and twopence coloured” — the title of Stevenson’s tribute — the stationer in his city sold “pages of gesticulating villains, epileptic combats, bosky forests, palaces and war-ships, frowning fortresses and prison vaults — it was a giddy joy,” he recalled, and the shop itself was a lodestone rock for “all that bore the name of boy.”

At first, English publishers sold sheets of principal characters from popular plays, imprinting the name of the theater staging a play and often the star actors. Enthusiasts — mainly boys and young men — bought them as souvenirs.

By 1812, sheets of scenes from plays were being sold with characters and, eventually, boxed kits appeared containing all the essentials of the stage: backdrops, curtains, props, orchestras and, of course, tiny actors, all to cut out and (if one spent just a penny) color. Some kits came with special script booklets or stage directions.

Nearly 300 toy productions, also known as juvenile dramas, were published in England between 1811 and 1860. Fans could choose military exploits (“The Battle of Waterloo,” “Conquest of Mexico,” “Invasion of Russia”), dramas and pirate stories (“Black Beard,” “Brigand and the Maid”) and even Shakespeare (“Macbeth,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Julius Caesar”).

Basia Nosek demonstrates the setup of a 19th century French shadow box. Conservation Division. Photo:  Shawn Miller.

Such was the popularity of toy theaters that the first play written specifically for the medium, “Alone in the Pirate’s Lair,” published in 1866, made its way to the actual stage, followed by other original toy theater plays, according to theater historian Nicole Sheriko.

“They’ve turned out to be really compelling examples of what occupied a child in a certain period,” Mark Dimunation, RBSCD chief, said of a collecting effort focused not just on toy theaters, but also on other printed objects children played with, such as games, paper dolls and boxes with moving scenes.

The division initiated a “very self-conscious push” to collect these objects to complement its substantial holdings of children’s literature, Dimunation said. “They help us understand what is going on in some of the literature.”

Their research value also lies in the vivid hues imprinted on many, enabled by the rise of chromolithography in the 19th century. “They’re part of the history of printing, too,” Dimunation said. “The world suddenly becomes colorful.”

In England, the raucous stage of early 19th century London inspired the art form. But toy theaters flourished elsewhere as well — America, Germany, France — where they evolved and took different forms, a fact reflected in the collections.

Multiple theaters in the Library’s collection are panoramas — paper scenes wrapped around rods. When turned, cranks on either side of the theater advance scenes. Sometimes, the scenes progress through a play; in other cases, they are unassociated with one another.

These theaters, especially, have wear and tear, as paper ripped as a panorama was unwound, or cranks went missing or broke over time. The Library’s conservation lab has treated both issues. Basia Nosek, a recent intern in the lab, crafted an entirely new wooden crank to restore one theater.

Colorful cover of the toy theater of "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," featuring an underwater scene with a large octopus attacking a diver

“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Conservation Division. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Betsy Haude of the Conservation Division finished work in the spring on “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” a beautifully illustrated panorama in deep blues and greens based on Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

It arrived with tears that had been repaired by an earlier owner with pressure-sensitive tape, “which is terrible for paper,” Haude said. So, she carefully removed the tape and mended the tears with archival-quality materials.

Sometimes, however, when a historical mend is determined not to be causing damage, conservators leave it in place, not wanting to remove something that might tell a bigger story about the object and its use, Haude said.

She is the paper liaison to RBSCD. The division’s retired children’s literature specialist, Sybille Jagusch, reached out to her to assess which theaters needed treatment. Haude and colleague Gwenanne Edwards identified an initial batch most in need of repair.

Edwards completed work recently on a shadow puppet theater, a variety that includes cutouts that were placed behind the theater’s paper curtain. A light illuminated them from behind, and viewers could see silhouettes of the cutouts from the front. A single theater could have up to 100 puppets, some with moveable parts.

“The little players … sometimes had an unfortunate habit of creasing up or becoming unglued,” biographer Peter Ackroyd wrote of Dickens’ theaters.

“There’s a lot of structural work that we have to do with the puppets if it’s that kind of theater,” Edwards said.

Color photo of two hands holding a tiny scuba diving figure

Betsy Haude shows the setup of a 19th century shadow box toy. Conservation Division. Photo: Shawn Miller.

As a final step before returning repaired theaters to RBSCD, conservators construct archival-quality housing to ensure their longevity.

The most popular English toy theater play, “The Miller and His Men,” debuted in London’s Covent Garden in 1813. The story climaxes with fire and an explosion, an exciting spectacle that, in toy form,  caused some home setups to perish.

The play captivated Dickens and, many years later, Churchill. It’s possible Churchill’s immersion in the story even inspired some of his trademark rhetoric as the United Kingdom’s World War II prime minister, theater historian George Speaight speculates.

In the final scene of “Miller,” a cornered villain exclaims, “Surrender? Never! I have sworn never to descend from this spot alive!”

Can there be a remembered echo in Churchill’s dramatic words to the House of Commons in 1940? Speaight asks — “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds … we shall never surrender!”

Likewise with Stevenson: “What is ‘Treasure Island’ but one of the piratic dramas retold?” Speaight postulates.

Gradually, toy theaters faded in popularity as the 20th century brought new diversions. But their magic is such that even a researcher today, visiting the Library’s Rare Book Reading Room, is sure to find delight in the carefully preserved record left behind.

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