The Juvenile Theater: a Microcosm of Theater

Art cataloger Bettina Smith curated The Juvenile Theater: a Microcosm of Theater for The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

The products of hobbies and children’s pastimes don’t often survive years of use to reappear in museum and library collections, but those that do can provide a glimpse into a society more vivid than any history textbook. One example of this is the toy theater, a three-dimensional miniature theater in which a child manipulates paper cutouts of characters to recreate plays of the day. The toy theater originated in the nineteenth century and was popular throughout Europe, but in England, where the trend was known as “the Juvenile Drama,” it took on an added dimension. The London publishers who produced the sheets of characters to be cut out for performance within a toy theater also offered larger prints of contemporary actors and actresses in theatrical roles, copying details of the actual costumes they wore on stage. Done in the same exuberant style as the character sheets (though not intended for use in a toy theater), they were designed to be colored in, and even embellished with pieces of foil, fabric, and other materials. The proliferation of these prints attests to the status of the theater as the prime form of entertainment and preserves visual details of scenery and costume that might otherwise have been lost.

The publisher William West was one of the pioneers of toy theater print production in England in the early nineteenth century. He both engraved and published prints for sets of character sheets. From the way they are arranged on the sheet, using every bit of available space, it is easy to see that these figures were meant to be cut out. In addition to purchasing all the necessary character sheets for one play, the owner of a toy theater might also buy a script containing a simplified version of that play. Each script would have been sold individually as a small pamphlet that was easy to hold with one hand while the other hand moved characters around on the stage.

The phrase “penny plain, twopence colored” originates with toy theater prints—both the character sheets and the theatrical portraits that came after. These prints could be purchased either plain—with the intention that purchasers would do the coloring themselves—or fully colored by the print shop. Once colored, a theatrical portrait would most likely be framed and hung on a wall in the home to be admired. You can see an example of a colored theatrical portrait here.

Playing with toy theaters and coloring theatrical portraits were activities primarily undertaken by boys, which probably explains why the most common portraits depict actors in the roles of warriors, pirates, or kings. But some girls and even adults took up the hobby of coloring these prints, so occasionally an actress, such as Sarah West in the role of Desdemona, is portrayed.

Theatrical portraits were taken one step further in what are known as "tinsel prints." After coloring the print, the purchaser would affix small bits of foil, fabric, and even leather to the actor’s costume in appropriate areas: foil for armor and jewelry, fabric for a kilt, or leather for a pair of boots. The foil could be purchased pre-cut or in sheets to be cut by hand. The finished result is multi-dimensional and truly dazzling.

Audio tours

Click here to listen to art cataloger Bettina Smith discuss colored and uncolored theatrical portraits, as well as here for an example of a lavishly embellished tinsel print.