Archive for the 'History and background' Category


American Toy Theatre

Toy Theatre was never widespread in the USA. Selz’s American Boys Theater, published by Scott and Company of New York in the 1870s was a reprint of the plays published in England by the “Boys of England” magazine.

This series was followed by a colour printed theatre published by Singer of New York in 1883. This featured traditional European fairy tales and stories from American history such as “Pocahontas” and “The Battle of Bunker Hill”.

Further good quality colour printed plays appeared from McLoughlin Brothers who also published numerous paper toys and cut out sheets. The firm was still selling Toy Theatres after the first world war.

At that time good quality modern plays appeared in the “Delineator” magazine. Each play consists of simple theatre front designed to fit into a shoe box, two scenes, set pieces and characters on a single page. The designer was Robert McQuinn.

Other similar productions appeared, some inspired more by Hollywood than the theatre and designed as children’s toys. Latterly Walt Disney became a Toy Theatre publisher. Plays appeared in his magazines and his artists also designed the “Snow White Theatre” which had the same mounted front design as a classic Pollock stage.


Czech Toy Theatre


Theatre by A.Storch and Son of Prague, 1924.

In “Toy Theatres of the World”, Peter Baldwin notes that was aware of “large proscenia together with corresponding backcloths and wings” that, “date mostly from the beginning of the (20th) century.” He also noted that, “there is very little information on publishers, owing to an absence of printed names on the bottom of the sheets.”

The late Frank Bradley kindly gave me a photo (see above) of a Czech “Toy Theatre” in his possession. It was published by A.Storch of Prague in 1924.

On a trip to Prague I easily found the old shop of A.Storch on the Old Town Square. Today it is a souvenir shop but if it was a Toy Theatre shop at one time then it must be the best surviving example in Europe!

Enquiries led me from this shop to a chain of antique print shops in the city whose owners kindly supplied information. Using this and material from Czech sources I have finally cleared up some mysteries!

As any visitor to Prague will realise, there is a strong living tradition of puppetry in the Czech Republic.

In the nineteenth century Prague was the capital of Bohemia, a part of the Austrian Empire, so it is not surprising that Toy Theatre material was “imported” from Germany, Austria and France.

In 1894 Karel Stapfer published the first Czech Toy Theatre prints in Prague, these had scenes size 30 x 21 cm. Unfortunately the entire stock was burnt in a warehouse fire so native production was further delayed.

Although other Toy Theatre prints followed the puppet tradition forced its way in. The unique Czech “Family Theatre” resulted from this. These theatres used large “Toy Theatre style” stages and scenery, which were printed by colour lithography and published in large numbers in a number of series. Instead of using sheets of characters they substituted small marionettes suspended on wire, the larger ones having strings as well to control movement. Many well-known artists contributed to these designs and the stages developed a highly decorative and distinctive style. The Family Theatre was an important part of Czech culture in the early twentieth century.

 One of the earliest to adopt this style was Anthony Muenzberg, who began production in 1911. When he died in 1950 the Communist regime would not let his son take over the business and all the production facilities were scrapped. However in 1988 Milos Kasal began to sell replicas of Muenzberg stages, scenery, marionettes and props. This has now expanded to a substantial range (see Ironically I had already purchased several of his delightful marionettes in Prague, without realising the Toy Theatre connection.

Toy Theatre lives on in the Czech Republic albeit in a “morphed” form. Two other spin-offs still exist as popular children’s toys. These are the little magnetic theatres and the wooden theatres that use small marionettes or cardboard figures suspended by wires from above.

So the A.Storch stage that Frank Bradley owned was designed for the Family theatre not the Toy Theatre. It is easy to see now  how this confusion arose.




Toy theatres in other countries

England, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark and the USA all had a tradition of “Toy Theatre” sustained over a number of years. We also know of more “transient” publications from a few other countries as follows. Further information on this topic would be very welcome.


There were no less than six publishers recorded in Milan between 1860 and c.1920. The publications were in the French style, i.e. theatres to set up and look at rather than perform. Some sheets were direct copies.


Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957), the brother of Willam Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, was also a noted playright and artist. He was born in London but educated in Sligo and Dublin and came from an old Irish family. He was a Toy Theatre “enthusiast” and progressed from collecting and performing the plays of Webb and Pollock to writing and drawing his own plays. From this he later became a writer for the full size theatre.

Three of his Toy Theatre plays, “James Flaunty”, “The Treasure of the Garden” and “The Scourge of the Gulph” were published by Elkin Mathews in London in book form between 1901 and 1903. Although these were published in London and influenced by the English Toy Theatre, culturally they belong to Ireland.


A tradition of “paper drama” (Kamishibai) has existed in Japan since the 12th Century! Men travelled the country with a miniature stage and told stories using a series of wooden boards with pictures that were revealed in turn, a bit like a modern slide show. This art form has survived and is sometimes called “Japanese Toy Theatre” although there were no publishers as such.

During the Edo period in the eighteenth century a technique was developed for making perspective scenes from paper. This developed into commercial publications that can be seen as something close to European Toy Theatre tradition. Prints were sold to enable three-dimensional constructions to be made from them. Variously known as kumiage-e, kumitate-e and tatebanko they were brightly coloured woodblock prints. Some constructions needed as many as 10 sheets. The subject matter included tableaux of scenes from the traditional Kabuki drama.

Kabuki involved rapid changes of scene and costume and effects similar to the tricks of the Victorian pantomime. All these features were reproduced in miniature. Interestingly, as with the English Toy Theatre, the best quality prints were published in the early nineteenth century and printing degenerated and paper got thinner and coarser as it hit the more popular market later.

The original sheets are now very rare and almost forgotten in Japan. Examples can be found in museum collections and occaisionally come up for sale.


Only one publication is known, a stage front published by D.Bolle of Rotterdam and illustrated in “Toy Theatres of the World” by Peter Baldwin (Fig.88).


The only publication we know of is a very late one. In 1963 C.Schibstedt of Oslo published a colour printed cardboard kit to make a small Chinese style theatre with characters and scenes and a text to perform, “The Emporer’s Nightingale”.


Toy Theatre is believed to have been published in Russia but we have no details.


The only publications we know of are modern.

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