19th-Century Paper Theaters


Paper Theater
Publisher: Imagerie Pellerin
Proscenium, Théâtre Francaise, Scenery and figures, Cendrillon  
France, ca. 1866. Facsimile. Collection of Eric G. Bernard
 

Before the availability of children’s periodicals and mass-produced toys, a rather unique and enchanting entertainment for children emerged during the second decade of the 19th century. Small tabletop theaters constructed out of printed paper, adhered to cardboard and mounted on a wooden frame introduced a unique visual entertainment into homes. Marketed to children for their entertainment and educational values, paper theaters engaged young audiences, and from contemporary accounts, adults as well, with countless hours spent on intricate preparation and performance.  More than a mere toy, the theaters allowed children to expand the limits of their imaginations, creating entertainments as good as their efforts and talents allowed.

 
Paper Theater
Publisher: Paluzie Proscenium, sheet number 1028 Scenery and figures,
Don Juan Tenorio. Spain, ca. 1900. Color lithograph
 

Nearly every major European country as well as the United States developed its own tradition of paper theater during the 19th century into the early 20th century. It was Juvenile Drama in England, Papiertheater or Kindertheater in Germany and Austria, dukketeater in Denmark, teatro de los niños or teatrillo in Spain, and théâtre de papier in France. England had over 50 publishers, Germany 54, Spain 14, France 13, Denmark 10, Austria 9, and the United States 5. All of these versions to some degree were derived from the ability to mass produce the printed image, initially from engraved copper plates, followed by color lithography in the mid-19th century.

 
Paper Theater
Publisher: Oemigke & Reimschneider
Proscenium, sheet number 779
Scenery for Salon and figures for Hamlet
Germany, ca. 1840 Facsimile
 

The relative sophistication of the visual and theatrical elements of paper theaters makes it puzzling as a child’s plaything. Most paper theaters were complete with a stage front or proscenium, scenery, actors, and a small printed booklet with the dialogue, the scene setting for each act, and directions for the movements of the figures. These toys were challenging for young people, yet their popularity must have been widespread, given the large number of printers and publishers engaged in their manufacture.

 
Paper Theater
Publisher: Imagerie Pellerin
Proscenium, Théâtre Francaise, Scenery and figures, Cendrillon
France, ca. 1866. Facsimile
 

Today, these small theaters and their vast repertoire of plays remain valuable records of professional performances and theater design of the 19th century. Sometimes created from fantasy, often the scenery and costumes were faithful representations of actual stage productions, as recorded by sketch artists sitting in live theater performances, or designed exclusively for the paper theater by professional theatrical designers. There is even a sense of the style of 19th-century acting from the attitudes and positions of paper theater figures and actors in theatrical portraits.

 
Paper Theater
Publisher: Gustav Kühn
Proscenium: Neue Theater Proscenium, sheet number 8709
Scenery, Kirche (Church), no. 7588/7589;
Figures, Maria Stuart, no. 4303 (1860). Germany, ca.1835
Hand colored copper engraving with proscenium facsimile
 

The plays, adapted into small playbooks for the paper theater from which the children recited, could hardly be considered children’s stories. They were melodramas or stories from history or pantomimes, or even the great works of the celebrated writers of each country, including Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Goethe, Schiller, Cervantes, and Hans Christian Anderson. Even the popularity of opera is apparent from the number of composers represented, including Mozart, Spontini, Beethoven, Rossini, Weber, Wagner, Auber and Donizetti.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published as a paper theater play in both England and Germany, an indication of its great international popularity. 

 
Paper Theater
Publisher: Seix y Barral. Teatro de los Niños, Teatro-Escenario, Modelo M
Scenery and figures, La fiercilla domada (The Taming of the Shrew)
Spain, ca. 1918. Color lithograph
 

For all of its wide-ranging manufacture and influence, the paper theater was primarily a 19th-century phenomenon, with occasional minor resurgences in popularity in the 20th century.  Fortunately, the wonder of paper theater has been preserved through collectors and a very few, but fine, players performing with traditional paper theaters and in contemporary interpretations of miniature theaters made of paper. To this day, there remain organizations in England, Germany, and Denmark dedicated to the study and performance of paper theater.