A Brief History of Early Movable Books
At present, books considered “pop-up” or movable are popular sources of
delight for children and adults alike. However, the types of books
today’s audiences associate with such a genre are the result of a
somewhat long development and, consequently, form an intriguing niche in
the “history of the book.”
The first movable books actually predate the print culture. The earliest
known examples of such interactive mechanisms are by Ramon Llull
(c.1235-1316) of Majorca, a Catalan mystic and poet. His works contain
volvelles or revolving discs, which he used to illustrate his complex
philosophical search for truth. Through his logic, he divided categories
of things and ideas, substances, adjectives and verbs, and knowledge and
actions, into superior and inferior groups. Each group was made up of
units designated by letters, which were then assigned appropriate
sectors on circles of different sizes. The circles were cut out and
placed one on top of one another as “a method of obtaining a higher
knowledge of all things by simple mechanical means (the turning of
circles) in the shortest time” (Lindberg 51).
Volvelles were utilized from Llull’s time through to the eighteenth
century for manuscripts and in printed books. They illustrated a variety
of topics, including natural science, astronomy, mathematics, mysticism,
fortune telling, navigation, and medicine.
Other types of movables, in particular “turn-up” or “lift-the-flap”
mechanisms, were in use as early as the fourteenth century. They were
especially helpful in books on anatomy, where separate leaves, each
featuring a different section of the body, could be hinged together at
the top and attached to a page. This technique enabled the viewer to
unfold, for instance, multiple depths of a torso, from ribcage to
abdomen to spine. One spectacular example of an anatomical movable is
Andreas Vesalius De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome, printed
in Basel in 1543. It features a movable illustration in which the human
anatomy is shown in seven detailed superimposed layers.
Movable books were not created for juvenile audiences until the early
nineteenth century. In fact, children’s books were not published on a
large scale until the latter half of the eighteenth century, when
publisher John Newbery began selling books specifically for children.
Soon afterward, innovative publishers started experimenting with
creative and interactive ways to achieve success in a juvenile market.
The first successful product resulting from these novel attempts was the
Harlequinade, designed by London printer and bookseller Robert Sayer.
Around 1765, Sayer developed a “lift-the-flap” style book. The book
consisted of two engraved scenes. Both scenes were split in the center
by a series of flaps, layered one top of another and attached at the top
and bottom of the scene, so each could be lifted up from the center. The
various half-scenes on the top and bottom of every flap corresponded and
were interchangeable with one another. As a result, turning up the flaps
created amusing variations in the scenes. Descriptive verses accompanied
each flap and informed the reader the order in which the scenes should
be unveiled. Sayer decided to call his “metamorphoses” Harlequinades
after the Harlequin, a leading character featured in pantomime theatre.
Harlequin, too, became the central figure in Sayer’s books. The
Harlequinades soon became hugely popular among children, and many
titles, including pirated editions, were sold.
In the 1820s, miniature portrait painter William Grimaldi developed
another type of “lift-the-flap” book referred to as a toilet book. He
initially devised the idea by sketching articles from his daughter’s
dressing table as representations of specific virtues. The articles
served as flaps, which, when lifted up, revealed scenes illustrating
each virtue. Grimaldi’s son Stacy published the first book in 1821.
Entitled The Toilet, it enjoyed great popularity and inspired other
publishers release imitations. In 1823, Stacy published a boy’s book, A
Suit of Armour for Youth, also written and illustrated by his father.
In it, Grimaldi substituted toilet articles for pieces of armour, which
also represented moral themes depicted underneath the flaps.
Although the early kinds of movables described above are extremely
scarce, a number of copies have survived. Images of these early books
can be found in Sten G. Lindberg’s “Mobiles in Books: Volvelles,
Inserts, Pyramids, Divinations and Children’s Games” (The Private
Library, 3rd series, vol. 2), Peter Haining’s Movable Books: An
Illustrated History, and Blair Whitton’s Paper Toys of the World (full
citations are below). Lindberg concentrates on earlier period, from the
thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Haining and Whitton discuss the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.