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Toy theatre

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Format : Toy, 40 x 46 x 41cm

 We all know a kid who likes to organise everyone into performing a play. This was recognised by European toy manufactures since the early 19th century. During the 1880s Ben Pollock's Toy Shop was located opposite the Britannia Theatre and thus Pollock's became a maker of toy theatres. They were also sold at the concessional stands of British playhouses costing 'a penny plain and twopence coloured'.  Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson and Pablo Picasso amongst many other well-known writers and artists were known to have experimented with toy theatre.
Toy theatres also gave space for playwrights to test and develop performances with less restrictions and expense than the actual commercial premises.  

Later more expensive, elaborate sets contained wooden stages with lighting, wires for character movement, orchestra pits and coloured booklets.  This set has a 27 cm Proscenium, an 1 orchestra pit, a Masonite curtain, a wooden base with rails, a backboard 35cm, wires for manipulating characters, plus scripts, characters and scenery for classics like Cinderella and an uncut book for Hamlet based on Laurence Olivier film and Stevenson's Treasure Island. The construction booklet instructs how to set up a lighting rig.

Many children also created their own scripts and theatre sets with homemade curtains and old cardboard, using the opportunity turn a profit by charging their pals to watch. In 1946 South Australian man Tom Cameron recalled the show-biz side of life as a child in the 1870s:  
...we used to make up our own theatre. We had figures on sticks, and three of us operated those from the sides of a homemade stage. The whole thing was about as big as a table, while another lad behind the curtains read the dialogue. It was good fun and we used to charge our friends a penny to see it, and then of course we used to have our own concerts and I think there was more home life in those days.
Reminiscences of the Cameron family, D 7249

Even early on Toy Theatres came under competition from magic lantern shows and other changes in entertainment. Of course television dramatically changed the interest in Toy Theatres though like many things that have fallen from favour, enthusiasts have revived the art with new stories and technologies.


Further reading

Speaight, George The history of the English toy theatre London: Studio Vista, 1969

Wilson, A. E. Penny plain, twopence coloured; a history of the juvenile drama New York: B. Blom [1969]

Burton, Anthony Children's pleasures: books, toys and games from the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood London: V & A Publications, 1996


Victoria and Albert Museum: Museum of Childhood: Collections. Toy theatre

Pollock's Toy Museum: What is toy theatre?

Powerhouse Museum: Collections. Toy Theatre "Zoological Garden"

SA Memory: To be a child. Toy theatre

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