THERE’LL be no Wiis in my house this Christmas thank you very much. We watched them being demonstrated at the launch by Nintendo PR girls thrusting, parrying and gesticulating in front of a widescreen TV.
It immediately made us wonder how long it would be before one of them let the thing slip, sending it crashing through the screen. Wiis don’t have a wrist strap for nothing, but if I was the parent of a youngster expecting one from Santa this Christmas, I be taking out extra insurance.
Oh for the days when children were content with a stocking containing an orange, the latest Dandy or Beano annual, a handful of assorted nuts (still in their shells, of course) and a few simple and inexpensive toys. Ah yes, I remember it well.
Time was when the must-have Christmas present for children and adults alike was a magical
book like the ones illustrated here. In their own way, they were the Victorian equivalent of the Game Boy — and they didn’t need batteries. They are mechanical or metamorphic books, designed to be interactive, their pages changing as the story develops, all at the whim of the reader.
Today’s collectors call them "pop-up books", a catch-all term that covers a multitude of elaborate and innovative three-dimensional and other designs that remain as captivating today as they were a hundred years ago.
Actually, mechanical books have a long history. One of the earliest examples was published in the 13th century by an unlikely sounding character named Ramon Llull (c.1235-1316), who wrote poetry and practiced mysticism on the island of Majorca.
His hand-written complex philosophical texts were illustrated with revolving desks called volvelles which could be rotated around a central pivot to point to words or symbols on the page or predict the future.
Books specifically intended for juveniles did not appear in any form until the latter half of the 18th century when publisher John Newbery responded to the need to improve children’s education.
Thereafter, it was only a short time before publishers began to experiment with creative and innovative ways to capitalise on the market.
London printer and bookseller Robert Sayer took the lead in about 1765 with the production of "Harlequinades", books named after the pantomime figure, which consisted of pages with two engraved scenes.
Each scene was split in the centre by a number of flaps, layered one on top of another and attached at the top and bottom of the page, so that each flap could be lifted from the centre.
Using a similar technique, the first Paper Doll Books were produced by London publisher S. & J. Fuller from 1810 and in the1820s, miniature portrait painter William Grimaldi developed another type of "lift-the-flap" book referred to as a toilet book.
He devised the idea as a party game, sketching articles from his daughter’s dressing table as representations of specific virtues. For example, rouge equalled modesty, powder, innocence and the looking glass, humility.
The articles were illustrated on flaps, which, when lifted, revealed scenes illustrating each virtue.
His son Stacy published the first book in 1821 entitled The Toilet, which enjoyed great popularity and inspired a rash of imitations.
Two years later, Stacy published a boy’s book, A Suit of Armour for Youth, also written and illustrated by his father, in which illustrations of moral themes were hidden beneath pieces of armour.
Thomas Dean was the first publisher to produce truly movable books on a large scale. The firm was already in existence at the start of the 19th century but they were among the first to adopt the new lithographic printing process that had been invented in Germany in 1798.
Dean’s "toy books" dominated the market from the 1840s being noted for their beautiful chromolithographic images.
His son George joined the company in 1847 and they opened studios in London where teams of artists devised ever more complex movable books.
In 1856, for example, they released a series of fairy tales adventure stories in "peepshow" style titled New Scenic Books.
Each scene was depicted on three or more cut-out sections placed one behind the other and attached by a ribbon running through them.
In the 1860s, Dean also invented a mechanism to animate a scene by pulling a tab. Advertised as "living pictures", among the best known was the "Royal Punch and Judy as Played before the Queen"
In it, the reader controls the action in a three-dimensional miniature theatre, moving the characters by pulling tabs located at the bottom of each page.
"Home Pantomime Toy Books" was another Dean’s innovation in which the entire subject matter of an image changes as the pages are turned.
Dean dominated the industry for much of the 19th century but in the 1880s, a number of German publishers capitalised on their country’s expertise as specialist lithographic printers and crashed into the European children’s book market.
Leading the attack was Raphael Tuck who moved to England as a young man, working first as a furniture maker. He subsequently began framing and selling pictures and chromolithographs printed in Germany from a wheelbarrow in the streets of London.
In 1866, he opened a small shop and four years later, his sons joined him to open a publishing business in the capital.
The business was a huge success and Tuck later became official Publisher to Queen Victoria.
Father Tuck’s Mechanical Series was a popular series featuring multi-layered three-dimensional scenes, while Fun at the Circus featured pages with three-dimensional overlays designed to be raised out of the book and laid on to the tabletop like a diorama.
They were also printed in both colour and black and white, the latter enabling children (and their parents) to colour them by hand.
Another German publisher who specialised in colourful movable books was Ernest Nister. His company was founded in Nuremberg in 1877 in a city which had been a centre for toy making throughout the 19th century and had the most advanced colour printing in the world.
His speciality was illustrations that stood up automatically. His figures and scenes were die-cut and mounted in a three-dimensional framework connected by paper guides. As the pages are turned, the figures stand to attention in a setting which has its own perspective.
His other forte was movable books with pages made up of dissolving and a revolving slats which cause the images to transform using complex geometric cuts which revolve as tabs are pulled by the reader.
However, the most complex and original movable picture books of the 19th century were produced by a Munich artist called Lothar Meggendorfer.
His illustrations often had five parts which move simultaneously and in different directions using intricate levers hidden between pages. When activated they give the characters and scenes an almost endless range of movement.
Dozens of interlocking parts and intricate rivets make the carpenters chop the wood, the musicians play their horns, and the nurse rock the baby but because of their complexity, the books were the preserve of the wealthy.
Nevertheless, from the 1880s to the 1900s, Meggendorfer’s works enjoyed brisk sales and many reprintings.
Needless to say, the outbreak of the First World War crippled output from both German and British publishers alike. The Second World War dealt the industry another blow and in this day and age of electronic gadgetry, pop-up books are enjoyed and appreciated by a relatively small select few.
I know which camp I’m in.