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A GIF image that depicts a series of toy theaters in their complete stage.
Toy shadow theater before conservation treatment, showing the progression of background scenes. From the beginning, the scenes include: Noah’s Ark, The Fire, Longchamp Race Course (to depict the Grand Prix de Paris horse race and a military review), In the Air, Woodland Walk (to depict a country promenade and hunting with hounds), A Seaport, The Railway, and On the Boulevards (to depict a boulevard and a carnival in front of an opera house). Animation: Conservation Division. Item: PN1979.S5 T33 1895.

Conserving Toy Theaters

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Two images side by side. Image on the left depicts a toy theater orange in tone, with illustrations showing riders on camels. The image on the right depicts a toy theater showing a young girl looking at a wolf, and above is a fairy shaking hands with a gnome.
Examples of toy theaters after conservation treatment. Left: Eine Reise durch Afrika (A Journey through Africa),1889, DT11 .R45 1889. Right: Märchen-Panorama (Fairytale Panorama),1890, PN1979.T6 M37 1890. Images: Conservation Division.

 

The following is a guest post by Gwenanne Edwards, Senior Paper Conservator in the Conservation Division.

Before television, toy theaters were a visual way to bring stories to life in the home. Incorporating a miniature stage, scenes, and puppets, the theaters made acting out plays and stories readily accessible to children and adults alike. Popular throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, there are dozens of extraordinary examples of these toy theaters in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress.

Although there are numerous variations of toy theaters, the theater usually comprised a stage and a proscenium made of paperboard and wood. The scenery was printed on single sheets of paper that could be interchanged or a roll of paper that could be turned to progress to different scenes. Puppets were cut out by the user at home from papers printed with multiple characters.

Four images arranged in gallery style. The image farthest to the left shows the complete toy theater which shows a large boat atop the water and various fish in the sea. The second from the left shows this toy theater partially rolled up. The top right image shows paper fragments of the different fish. Bottom right shows close ups of the toy theater characters, a man, an octupus, and a submarine.
Un voyage au fond de la mer (A journey to the bottom of the sea), 1896, PN1979.S5 V68 1896. Toy theater after conservation treatment. Left: front of theater; middle: back of theater, showing the roll of paper scenes that progresses and reverses by operating the metal hand cranks on the side; right: selection of paper puppets accompanying the theater, both partially cut (top right) and cut (bottom right). Images: Conservation Division.

These toy theaters bring paper conservators in the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress great joy and present us with unique challenges. Largely made of materials with which we are familiar and experienced (paper and paperboard), the theaters push us to work out of our normal comfort zone of flat, relatively inactive materials (think: prints, drawings, manuscripts) and into the world of movement and three dimensions.

An especially captivating toy shadow theater that we worked on is from 1895, France (PN1979.S5 T33 1895). This shadow theater includes eight colorful scenes printed on a roll of paper. To move from one scene to another, the roll is turned with the metal hand cranks on the side of theater. Instead of depicting a continuous play, the scenes are not associated with one another. Some of the scenes are intended to depict multiple subjects, to be used with a variety of puppets.

A GIF image that depicts a series of toy theaters in their complete stage.
Toy shadow theater before conservation treatment, showing the progression of background scenes. From the beginning, the scenes include: Noah’s Ark, The Fire, Longchamp Race Course (to depict the Grand Prix de Paris horse race and a military review), In the Air, Woodland Walk (to depict a country promenade and hunting with hounds), A Seaport, The Railway, and On the Boulevards (to depict a boulevard and a carnival in front of an opera house). Animation: Conservation Division. Item: PN1979.S5 T33 1895.

Shadow puppets accompanying the theater are placed on a circular rotating stand behind the scenes. A light (originally an oil lamp or candle) is placed behind the theater to illuminate the silhouettes of the shadow puppets onto the scenes. As if this theater could not be more charming, there is also a music box under the puppet stand. As the music box is wound with a small hand crank, a pleasant melody plays and the puppet stand rotates simultaneously, moving the puppets through the scene.

Four images in gallery style. Farthest to the left shows the cover of a toy theater which reads 'Tableaux Lumineux Animes.' The second shows the toy theater opened, with the back drop unfolded. The top right shows a diagram of how the theater works. The bottom right is a close up of the latch on the toy theater.
Toy shadow theater, after conservation treatment. Left: theater box, displaying an image of the shadow theater in use. Middle: back of the theater, with shadow puppets mounted on the rotating stand. Top right: diagram from the inside of the box lid showing how the shadow theater works. Bottom right: music box affixed to the back of the theater, to which the rotating puppet stand is attached. When the music box is cranked, music plays and the puppet stand rotates. Images: Conservation Division. Item: PN1979.S5 T33 1895.

Our conservation treatment of this theater included structural repair of the theater box, the theater structure, and theater components to restore safe movement and use; reduction of heavy overpainting and application of a more discrete, reversible inpainting in areas of loss in the stage and scenes; removal of old, poor-quality repairs and new repair of the paper scenes and shadow puppets; and washing of the uncut sheets of shadow puppets to reduce discoloration and staining. The condition of the music box was assessed by our knowledgeable objects conservator, who has more experience with metals and mechanical movements. The minor tarnish of the brass and minor corrosion of the steel components of the music box did not require treatment. Overall, the complex conservation treatment of the toy theater stabilized all the components, restored its operability, and improved its aesthetics.

Three images in gallery style. The left image shows a series of hot air balloons, aminals and blimps. The top right and bottom right depicts various characters of the toy theater including men, women, horses, and horse and carriage.
Selection of toy shadow theater puppets, after conservation treatment. Over 90 puppets accompany this theater, but all are not original to it and instead represent a collection from multiple sources. Left: sheet of uncut puppets, which was washed during conservation treatment to reduce discoloration and staining in the paper. Right: cut and partially cut puppets that were repaired during conservation treatment and housed in custom polyester film enclosures. Images: Conservation Division. Item: PN1979.S5 T33 1895.

The preservation of toy theaters does not end with conservation treatment. Just as important to their longevity is how they are stored. Because there are so many fragile parts of varying sizes and needs, their housings take careful consideration. We make a custom box for each toy theater, which hold all its components on several trays and in enclosures so that each element – the theater box, theater, scenes, stand, puppets, and even a music box – are adequately supported and can be safely accessed.

Two images side by side. Left image shows a toy theater packed away and stored inside a corrugated board housing. The right image shows a birds eye view of the toy theater housing, with four foam supports on each corner.
Toy shadow theater, after conservation treatment and housing. Left: inside custom box (lid removed) holding all the theater components on multiple trays and in a variety of enclosures; from top to bottom: uncut puppet sheets in a folder, puppet stand in a sink mat, shadow puppets in custom polyester film enclosures within a four-flap enclosure, and the theater inside the original theater box. Right: overhead view of the box tray holding the puppet stand in a sink mat. Images: Conservation Division. Item: PN1979.S5 T33 1895.

Learn more about the history and conservation of toy theaters at the Library of Congress here!

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Comments

  1. These are very cool! I wonder, does the LoC have any book theatres by the painter Jack Yeats, who was the brother of William Butler Yeats. I believe that he did several in the 1910s.

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