Wednesday, January 16th, 2013...9:30 am

Penny Plains and the Toy Theatre

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T.P. Cooke. MS Thr 933 (37)Long before Nintendo or choose you own adventure books the toy theatre was a beloved pastime in 19th-century England. Though its beginning is somewhat unclear, the origins of the toy theatre, also referred to broadly as juvenile drama, can be traced to the early 1800s. Publishers J. K. (John Kilby) Green, William West and R. Lloyd were the most prominent juvenile drama publishers at the turn of the century and the originator of the toy theatre has long been debated. Green claimed to have started the fad in 1808 and, although there has been no definitive supporting proof, there has also been little evidence against his claim.

The idea behind this hobby was fairly simple – engraved and etched prints of characters and scenes along with an abbreviated playbook were available for purchase. Colloquially known as “penny plain” and “twopence coloured” because of their prices, these prints were sold either uncolored or hand-colored. After purchasing the prints, the hobbyist would cut out and decorate the figures, mount them on a stiff paperboard, and use them with a small replica of a stage to recreate popular theatrical productions. Because the size of the prints varied, some collected the prints as portrait collections of specific actors and actresses and did not use them in a toy theatre. These larger portraits also became popular for tinseling – adorning the colored portraits with bits of tinsel, metallic paper, silk, and satin. Although toy theatre and juvenile drama both connote a childish hobby, due to the cost of the prints and accessories there was actually a large adult following as well.

Maria Foote. MS Thr 933 (63)

Juvenile drama peaked in popularity between 1830 and 1840 with between 50 and 100 firms involved in the production of toy theatre materials and the larger theatrical portraits. Some of the most well-known publishers of penny plains and twopence coloureds included West, Orlando Hodgson, and Matthew Skelt. Publishers, however, were only as successful as the artists they employed, a lesson that William West learned quickly. West’s first published prints left a lot to be desired but after employing the talents of George and Robert Cruikshank and William Blake his popularity as a juvenile drama publisher increased dramatically.

Like many hobbies, the demand for juvenile drama materials could not last forever. By the end of the 1870s the popularity for toy theatre materials had dramatically decreased. Famed toy theatre publisher W. G. (William George) Webb placed blame on the education system claiming it was taking up too much of children’s time as well as the popularity of photography which rendered hand-illustrated portraits less realistic and less desirable. Other possible factors in the downfall of juvenile drama include the changing nature of European theatre, which was shifting towards realistic dramas such as those by Henrik Ibsen.

To see more penny plain and twopence colored theatrical portraits and toy theatre materials look at our finding aid Theatrical penny plain and twopence coloured portraits, 1812-1848: Guide. (MS Thr 933)

[Thanks to Ashley M. Nary, Archival Assistant, for contributing this post.]

Fanny Kemble. MS Thr 933 (98)