A Short History of Toy Theater
by Donald Abramson
English toy theater got its start about 1811, when William West started publishing theatrical prints and selling them from his London shop, a combination toy shop, circulating library, and haberdashery.
The first prints were portraits of popular actors in their famous roles. Soon the rest of the cast was added, and the principals were shown in a variety of poses and costumes. It was but a small step to add the sets and prosceniums that could be mounted on wood and so built into a toy theater. Prosceniums were generally designed so that they could be mounted flat or in three dimensions, with a smaller proscenium inside a larger, highly decorative one.
In its heyday, toy theater was enormously popular, and a lot of publishers involved themselves in its creation and sale. Sheets were offered "penny plain or twopence colored," which means that one could get them nicely water-colored by the publisher or hand-color them oneself. It might take as many as 35 sheets to represent all the characters, backdrops, side wings, set pieces, and so on.
The designs were often direct copies of the shows that were currently playing in London. Artists attended newly opened shows armed with sketchpads prepared with half-drawn, unclothed figures, on which they proceeded to document the costume designs they were watching on stage. Scenery was similarly documented, although much of the scenery in 19th-century England was generic and used for more than one production.
Back in their shops, the artists worked with engravers to prepare plates for printing, and a popular show might have its toy theater counterpart available only days after opening.
Various kinds and styles of toy theater continue to be created today, but the old designs are, for the most part, long out of print—except for the occasional antique reproduction. Not surprisingly, original designs are today avidly sought by collectors.