History of pop-ups, wheels and whirls

Flips and flaps, wheels and whirls, today’s pop-ups, members of the movable book family, boast an illustrious history. The first ones, called volvelles, evidently hark back to the14th and 15th centuries. Volvelles were hand printed, scholarly manuscripts fitted with sets of different sized rotating discs. By manipulating the discs this way and that, people could indulge popular pastimes like exploring mystical theories, preparing astrological charts, telling fortunes, or even deciphering secret codes.

As the science of medical anatomy developed, anatomical flap books, featuring intricate, superimposed illustrations, allowed physicians to study the hidden wonders of the human body. Fifteenth century showmen toted sets of large-to-small cardboard panels, each graced by a peephole, to fairs and festivals across Europe. Common folk, peering in, were treated to familiar mythical, historical, or Biblical scenes. But amazingly, they were not flat. Much like the View Master of today, peepshows offered scenes in lifelike perspective.

Fashioned in increasingly smaller versions, peepshows came to grace many a private mantelpiece. Over the years, they also became more complex. Later ones featured multiple peepholes and strings, innovations that allowed interchangeable views and day-to-night lighting variations. By the mid-1800s, series of peepshow panels, fashionably connected by silken concertina “hinges,” commemorated momentous events like London’s Great Exhibition. The modern term for peepshow, ‘tunnel book,’ was evidently coined when tunnel-like peepshows celebrated the inauguration of the Thames Tunnel.

Children have enjoyed a rich oral tradition of fables and folk tales for endless generations, but books written explicitly for their pleasure appeared only in the mid-1700s. To encourage sales for the little ones, enterprising publishers incorporated interactive movable book techniques into their story lines. Children could now delight in “turn up” books, where pulling flaps amusingly changed illustrations in time with the text. By manipulating side tabs, they could magically convert slatted “transformation book” scenes into different panoramas entirely. Or by pulling individually tabbed illustrations as the stories unfolded, youngsters could make hands wave hello or heads nod knowledgably. In later books, a simple page turn could, through paper “scaffolding,” even cause characters to automatically rise to their feet.

Lothar Meggendorfer devised the most innovative 19th century movable books of all. Using ingenious combinations of wires, rivets, and hidden levers, with the magic of a single tab, he moved up to five illustrations per page simultaneously in all directions.

After WWI, English publisher Giraud produced movable books as we know them today. To enhance stories and verse, he included three-dimensional illustrations that, on turning the pages, automatically pop up into double page spreads. Even more amazingly, he produced a pop-up clown which “looped the loop,” spinning around on a pop-up dowel. His creations, as inexpensive as they were innovative, enjoyed wide popularity.

During the Great Depression, American publishers, seeking to spur sales, adapted these same whimsical types of illustrations to Walt Disney classics and traditional fairy tales. Their creations, which they coined “pop-up” books, heralded a new genre. Since then, pop-up books have been popping up everywhere. Many, like Peter Rabbits Lift the Flap Book and popped-up fairy tales like Puss in Boots and Alice in Wonderland, are aimed at the younger set.

Collectors might discover vintage movable books tucked in among regular children’s books at antique shows, auctions, estate sales, and flea markets. These charmers have repeatedly courted hands-on experience, of course. They may have suffered extensive wear and tear, including torn pages, missing tabs, discoloring, smudges, dents, or nicks. Prices vary. A mass- produced second-hand pop-up book may go for as little as a single cent. Older ones, depending on their age and condition, may command hundreds of dollars. Vintage volvelles and fragile flap books, however, seen today only in museums or in books like Peter Haining’s Movable Books: An Illustrated History, are priceless.

All photos are courtesy of www.robertsabuda.com.

How are today’s pop-ups made? Intricate though they may be, pop-ups are first and foremost books, and though they hold many secrets, they must open and then close flat again. Like regular books, they begin with a concept and a story line. Then paper engineers design prototypes of all the movable illustrations through a trial and error process that may take up to six months. Next, the complex components of each illustration are printed on card stock. Finally, these components, sometimes up to 600, are painstakingly pounded, cut free, folded, then hand assembled. As many as 60 people are needed to complete one book.

Paper engineer Robert Sabuda, the guru of American pop-up artists, is self-taught. His Internet site www.robertsabuda.com, features an exciting array of twirling, swirling, whirling ready made pop-ups that run the gamut from America The Beautiful to Narnia to mega-beasts. It also features the Simple Pop-Ups You Can Make! section. Given clear instruction, it turns out; anyone can create pop-up butterflies, bats, and birthday cakes.

Though he’s an old hand at pop-ups, Sabuda, like many of his followers, has never lost his youthful enthusiasm for his craft. “Sometimes,” he smiles, “when you turn the page, there is a great ‘WOW’ moment when the pop-up explodes [and] you are on your way to a great mechanical book!”