Colored prints from the heyday of toy theaters
The paper booklets seemed so out of place among the stacks of over-sized prints on the auction table. They had the customary drawings that you’d expect to find in an art gallery but these were not single sheets. They were so small, they shouldn’t have been here.
That’s why I stopped; I had to see what they were. They looked to be old; I could tell by the style of the drawings and the print of the text on the half-page cover. The one on top was inscribed “Pollock’s Juvenile Drama. The Corsican Brothers or the Fatal Duel.”
The cover was hiding part of a color drawing beneath it, and the part I could see showed a man in period clothes in two instances: At the top, he held a sword as if he were in a fight. At the bottom, he was cleaning blood from his sword, the fight over.
When I opened the flap, I saw the full duel along with a notation that these were 13 plates with characters, scenes and wings (for a stage, I presumed) from a play. The other three booklets had the same format, and were titled “The Woodsman’s Hut or the Burning Forest,” “The Waterman or the First of August” and “Lord Darnley.”
They were published by B. Pollock of London at his “Wholesale and Retail Theatrical Print and Tinsel Warehouse.” I could find no year of publication for the booklets so I went sleuthing.
Since part of title was juvenile drama I assumed that they were written to pique children’s interest in plays and lure them into the theater. I was wrong. With limited entertainment outlets, some children went to theaters without kicking and screaming.
Children apparently loved these colored prints, which they used to stage shows in toy theaters inside their 19th-century Victorian homes. The prints were replicas of famous plays in theaters in England and other countries (they apparently never gained a foothold in this country). Among the paper prints was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published both in England and Germany in the 1850s.
The prints were advertising and souvenirs made apparently first for adults and then children. They seemed to have started out as single prints of famous characters and then expanded to include several characters on both colored and plain - that children could color themselves – sheets. Along the way, staging, prosceniums and other elements were added.
The first of these Victorian toy theaters were the province of middle class children who could afford to pay the one penny or two penny to buy them (author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in an essay about his childhood memories of the prints in 1884). Later, the size and price for the sheets dropped and the toy theater became even more popular and widespread.
Children generally cut out the paper characters and scenes, pasted them to cardboard and operated them with strings like performing puppets. As a child, Charles Dickens created his own toy theater, writing a play and having his brothers work the puppets he developed.
Benjamin Pollock got into the business around the 1870s when he took over the company from his father-in-law J. Redington. Unlike Redington who had published some new plays, Pollock re-produced those that had already been done, including some from the JK Green printing plates that had been acquired by Redington. Green was one of the earliest toy-theater makers. Pollock also sold tinsel paper to be applied to portraits of an actor or actress that could be colored or decorated by hand.
Pollock ran the company until his death in 1937, and was said to have kept toy theater afloat while the world of entertainment for children was changing in the early 20th century. Pollock’s Toy Museum in London was opened to honor him, and it includes not only toy theaters but other toys from around the world.
The booklets at auction were from plays in theaters during the 18th century and were likely published during its last decades. The ‘Corsican Brothers’ was first performed in 1852 (and was based on an Alexandre Dumas book) and revived in 1880.
‘Woodsman Hut’ had been in performances in the early years of the 18th century. It ended with a burning hut that apparently was both a big spectacle and a big hit.
‘Waterman’ was revived in the 1830s and 1850s, with its first performance in 1774. ‘Lord Darnley’ plates seem to have been first offered in 1838.
One website noted that toy theaters were become very collectible. I wasn’t around when the booklets sold at auction, so I’m not sure how popular they were in the bidding. On the web, I found a Pollock’s “Oliver Twist” that sold twice: for $1,625 in 2008 at Christie’s and $2,375 in 2011 at Bonhams. It was said to be the only one of Dickens’ works that was presented in this format.
I found that Harvard University had been donated what appeared to be a major collection of toy theater memorabilia, as well as the New York Public Library. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its collection “Jack the Giant Killer” by Pollock.
If you’d like to build your own toy theater, the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London offered some instructions on how to do it.
If you’d like to get a look at a toy theater, check out the 10th annual International Toy Theater Festival going on right now in Brooklyn until Sunday, June 23.