Seeing is Believing!

Hi, my name is Mara Bosboom and I work for the Toy Museum in Deventer, the Netherlands. I have just completed a one month internship at the V&A Museum of Childhood. As I have done a lot of work on optical toys in my own museum, my job was to sort out the shelves of optical toys in the Museum of Childhood’s Store Six.

Magic Lantern


The Museum’s optical toy collection is quite varied. It contains anything from magic lanterns, zoetropes and praxinoscopes to optical spinning tops, lithophanes and kaleidoscopes. The lines of what is considered to be an optical toy are quite blurred, with them slipping over into the realm of paper theatres, myrioramas and image composition puzzles.

Composition puzzle of Alice in Wonderland

I am limiting this blog to discussing some of the more exceptional paper-based items, namely a Polyrama Panoptique and a Geographical Panorama.

Optics always fascinated people. From making shadows appear on a wall, to the use of the camera obscura in the 13th century, which would allow you to see a projected image of the outside world upside down, to the creation of a working magic lantern by Christian Huygens in 1659 which showed people magnified projected images, sometimes with movement. Most optical toys were inventions for adults and gradually made their way from entertainment at fairs to the nursery. Optical toys for children became really popular in Victorian times, when miniature magic lanterns and peepshows were created to educate and amuse them.

Engelbrecht’s Peep Show

One of these optical toys is the polyrama panoptique. This is a viewing device for day and night views. Day and night views and perspective prints were part of society from the 17th century onwards. These prints could be seen through a variety of viewing devices, such as a book camera obscura, a zograscope or an optical box.

When viewed through a magnifying lens these perspective prints give the impression of three dimensions. The title of the view was often printed above it in inverted writing which would come good once seen through the lens and mirror of the viewing device. Well-to-do people bought such viewing machines for their families and began collecting optical prints to show at home.

Polyrama Panoptique

The Museum collection holds several polyramas panoptique, dating about 1820-1830. Museum object Misc. 29-1967 (pictured above) has its own set of day and night views tucked away in the box.  The viewer looks through a small lens into the private space of the box. He can control the influx of light, by moving the panels at the top and the back of the box. Now he has the ability to change the perspective prints from day to night.

This movement of time, fast forwarding from day to night is an extraordinary sensation. It feels like you are in a time travelling machine. This is what is must feel like to be in Dr. Who’s Tardis! The most basic of the day and night views are made by piercing the perspective print and then sticking bits of coloured paper behind the holes. Thus creating the illusion of streets lit up at night, fireworks or even a volcano erupting. Backlighting the more sophisticated images brings on a whole change of scene. In seconds we are transported from a park in Paris to a circus scene, now travelling not only through time, but also through space!

Exterior day and interior night

The peepshow developed from these perspective prints. Always seeking to improve the illusion of depth, from the 1600s onwards the peepshow developed from a box for viewing perspectives to a box for viewing dissected images. Inside this box the dissected images were placed behind each other, and by viewing them through the small hole or magnifying lens, the illusion of three dimensions is created. Initially used at fairs to transport the keen public to another world, it was not until the 1800s that peepshows really came into their own.

Thames Tunnel Peep Show

By the 1820s engravers started to put sheets together to create accordion-like peepshows commemorating historical events, such as the opening of the Thames tunnel in 1843. A lot of these were taken home as souvenirs.

Geographical Panorama

A hybrid peepshow and theatre which shows historical and geographical events to children is the Geographical Panorama. It gives an illusion of depth by placing the smallest segment of the image in front with the larger ones behind it. This Geographical Panorama Exhibiting Characteristic Representations of the Scenery and Inhabitants of Various Regions with Museum number Misc.1-1955 was made in 1822 by publishers Harvey and Darton of Gracechurch Street in London.

Darton puzzle ‘My Mother’

From a Quaker background, they were known for their educational books and paper-based toys like puzzles and board games. They aimed to educate children with adventures based on fact. This panorama definitely fits the bill as four of the images are based on the engravings of John Webber. He accompanied Captain James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific Ocean from 1776-1779. Unfortunately James Cook was killed by disgruntled natives on this voyage, but Webber managed to return to England and publish his engravings in 1784.

Polar panorama

The five other images in the panorama were made by Elizabeth Barton Hack, who contributed images to several others of the Harvey and Darton publications. Her mother, Maria Hack, wrote the booklet accompanying the Geographical Panorama. Though devilishly tricky to set up, once the scenes are in place you could travel around the world from your nursery.

All the pieces of the panorama

I hope sharing my love for optical toys will inspire you to see the ones at the Museum of Childhood, where many more optical toys wait to be researched and explored!

I am indebted to Richard Balzer and Werner Nekes who, through their work on optical toys have provided me with a lot of the information.

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