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.
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
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
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.
|Theater Models in Paper and Card
by Robert Burgess.
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
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.
Pollock's "Side Wings to Suit Any Play."
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.
Pollock's "Tree Wings."
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.
toy theater print
"Curtain Drops & Foot Piece" from Pollock's
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.