Craft: How to Make a Victorian Toy Theater
Toy Theaters of various kinds were popular during the 19th century
In "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured," the title of a chapter by Robert Louis Stevenson in his Memories and Portraits, the author makes one of his many returns to his boyhood recounting his half forgotten delight in the toy theater. With his imaginative memory, Stevenson recaptures his childhood experience of purchasing his first toy theater prints.
Toy theater prints were printed sheets of stage characters and scenery for children to paste on cardboard and cut out. A number of the favorite operas and dramas were available, with complete sets of scenery for each act, and pictures of the characters in every disguise or change of dress that they assume in the course of the play. Single page prints in black ink on white paper for the purchaser to color were called "penny plains” and those in color were called “twopence coloured." If the thrifty child accumulated twopence, he could acquire these treasures already resplendent in their glowing colors. However, Stevenson believed that the young purchaser who parted with only a single penny was happier reserving half of his savings for the purchase of the paints wherewith he might himself color the scenery to make his characters to come to life.
A toy theater print "Drop Scene" from Pollock's Juvenile Drama.
Toy theaters of various kinds were especially popular during the nineteenth century. Those found in shops were typically quite large in size and elaborately perfect in every detail. In the finer styles they were supplied with a curtain that rolled up by machinery, and figures which were suspended by wires so as to move about the stage, while rows of little candles served as foot-lights. Such toys were, of course, quite expensive and had the serious drawback of being suited only to the enactment of a single play or drama.
In 1880, Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine included instructions for a “Fun for the Fireside” project of making a homemade toy theater that would provide “much employment, and a vast amount of amusement, to the boy-owner.” Make your own Victorian toy theater with the following instructions:
The frame of the theater, shown in Fig. 1, is made of wood, being twenty-seven inches in length, eighteen inches in width, and eleven inches in height.
A front for this edifice was made by drawing two side pillars of about three inches in width, which were surmounted and joined together by an ornamented arch; add a slight drapery of curtain to be drawn inside as further adornment.
This picture was pasted on stiff cardboard, neatly cut out and tacked upon the front of the theater. The general design of such a front is seen in Fig. 2. Experience taught, however, that this style of adornment would not bear the rough usage to which the toy was subjected, and was also in many ways inconvenient. As an improvement, therefore, a new front was pasted on strong pasteboard, and merely set up against the front of the frame, which supported it quite firmly while the theater was in use, and it could be packed away conveniently, with the rest of the scenery. In this case the front can be made larger than the frame, and makes the edifice appear much more imposing. A suitable size was found to be nineteen inches in width by sixteen inches in height, leaving a clear open square of about ten inches, through which to view the interior.
Another picture was then made to represent the curtain, and also pasted on strong pasteboard. This curtain should be about twelve inches in height, but not more than sixteen inches in width, so that it can be slipped up and down readily inside the frame without grazing or catching. A slender stick was then nailed from side to side upon the top of the frame, about half an inch behind the front, as a firm rest for this curtain, which was lifted or dropped as needed between it and the front frame.
Another slender stick was nailed in the same manner about the same distance in front of the back of the frame to keep the back scene in place, this scene being dropped in or lifted out of position in the same manner as the curtain.
Three stout wires or cords were also drawn across the top of the frame at about equal distances between these two sticks, to serve as support for the side scenes.
The back scenes were prepared and mounted upon pasteboard exactly like the curtain. Many pictures from the illustrated newspapers were found to serve for this purpose, and were painted in water color, or tinted with crayons. Re-prints of toy theater prints can be found in Theater Models in Paper and Card by Robert Burgess. This informative book has templates to construct toy theaters. This book is out-of-print but can be found at www.abebooks.com.
It was found that three side-scenes for each side were required for full effect, that is, each “set” or scene for the theater required one back scene with six sides or slips, which must of course be arranged so as to front each other. These sides were each pasted, or mounted, upon slips of pasteboard, twelve inches in height by about two and a half inches in width.
One of these is represented by Figure 3. When these sides or slips are placed in position against the cords already mentioned, a completed enclosure will be seen from the front, while there is still plenty of space left between them for moving in and out of the stage such toys, dolls or furniture as are required for the drama.
Thus for instance, if a back scene has been procured exhibiting the view of a street or the outside of a house, the side scenes can be prepared with but little trouble. Each of the sides need present merely a bit of wall, either stone or brick, or the corner of a house, with a door, or part of a roof. It is perhaps even easier to make a woodland view, or garden, by drawing a tree, flowering vine, or bit of trelliswork, upon each of the sides. Cutting the outlines with considerable irregularity adds much to the effect of a garden or forest scene, and when convenient, some sprays of real evergreen can be introduced into the front of the scene, with a few bits of stone or some pretty shells on a piece of green paper that serves as grass.
For an interior view, the back scene can be made by pasting some wallpaper or fancy paper on cardboard; plus a door and a couple of small pictures framed in gilt paper. The sides in this case can also be made of the paper with a few pictures, or better still, some scraps of lace or muslin draped for curtains.
One such rough interior, with a pretty little forest scene, will be sufficient for the presentment of the favorite and always thrilling drama of Little Red-Riding Hood. A toy wolf from a Noah’s Ark, a pretty paper doll for the heroine, and a grandmother in a toy bedstead, are all the actors absolutely essential to this drama, for which nearly every child can furnish a ready made dialogue.
Figure 4 gives a presentment of the theater when the back scene and the sides are appropriately arranged in their places, and the scene is ready for action.
Small jointed dolls are sometimes fastened to long wires, so that they can be moved about with ease, but paper figures are generally considered the best for small hands. Old torn toy-books often furnish plenty of these, and figures from fashion plates are also appropriate. Paper furniture is also more readily managed than anything more cumbrous. Pretty and gaily tinted chintz makes an excellent carpet, and baize or green muslin serves as a grass, while certain tints of light brown paper can present a sandy soil.
In an attempt to make the toy imitation resemble a real theater, it is usual to paint the curtain to resemble a drapery of cloth; but this can be as well served by substituting a plain piece of dark green or red fabric, firmly pasted upon pasteboard. A pretty and highly-tinted landscape may be used instead of the muslin, and a few strips of gold paper can be placed on the front, and the curtain as a further decoration. A band of colorful paper or muslin can also be pasted on the lower bar of the front, to conceal the wood. When the curtain is made to imitate drapery, pieces to represent festoons in the same style are frequently attached so as to fall below this bar or sill to the entrance. Some of the printed toy theater sheets also contain a clever little picture of an orchestra full of musicians, which can be attached below the front.
A very pleasing and really realistic effect can be produced by preparing the back of the stage with a landscape or garden, and then placing a little way in front of it, a scene to represent the interior of a room with an open door and window. A door or shutter can be readily made to play upon paper hinges, as in a paper house. The front and sides may then be dressed as an interior or room, and the little actors can pass in and out of the door at the back.
A toy theater print of "Characters" from Pollock's Juvenile Drama.