Pop-up books: collectible page-turners in 3-D

NEW YORK – Movable books feature dramatic, three-dimensional or moving parts that readers can manipulate. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, adults commonly used volvelles, parchment or paper wheel charts fitted with information-filled revolving discs, to decipher secret codes, plot the planets, explore mystical theories, and calculate dates of movable feasts. As the science of medicine advanced, anatomical flap books, featured superimposed illustrations covering, then revealing, concealed marvels of the human body.

Children had long enjoyed listening to tales and fables. Books illustrating morality tales and extoling maidenly virtues expressly for them, however, did not appear until the mid-1700s. To add to their appeal, publishers incorporated interactive movable paper mechanisms. Their pull tabs nodded heads and waved hands, while split flap-pages altered illustrations in pace with text, and lift flaps or slats changed illustrations entirely. In time, simple page turns, through secreted paper scaffolding, raised characters magically to their feet.

Two pop-up volumes (‘Peter and Sally on the Farm’ and ‘Ricky the Rabbit’) with text illustrations and color pop-up illustrations by noted paper engineer Vojtech Kubasta. (4to), cloth-backed pictorial boards; each volume an eight-page story book with large two-page fold-out pop-up, London: Bancroft & Co., 1961. Price realized $160 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Toward the turn of the century, Imagerie d’Epinal, a French printing company, introduced movable, hand-colored woodcuts based on popular folk, storybook and military themes. Soon after, people began exchanging similar German and British copper-engraved holiday and greeting cards. Some of their mechanisms were complex, featuring levers that simultaneously activated many movable parts.

Pocket-size peepshow books, evoking larger peephole boxes once popular at fairs and festivals across Europe, followed. Their progressive, overlapping, hand-painted page sets, bound by silken, concertina-like hinges, not only produced three-dimensional illusions in lifelike perspective. They whisked their viewers far and wide, from Queen Victoria’s Coronation and Paris by Night to Down the Rabbit Hole. On marking the 1843 inauguration of the Thames Tunnel, all tunnel-like movables were dubbed tunnel books. In time, these charmers, some offering multiple peepholes, variable lighting and changeable views, graced many a Victorian mantelpiece.

‘The Model Menagerie,’ With Natural History Stories, L. L. Weedon, Evelyn Fletcher and others. London: Ernest Nister; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1895, oblong 4to, 10¾ in. x 14in. Illustrated in sepia by William Foster with six three-dimensional chromolithographed ‘stand-up’ plates. Chromolithographed cloth-backed glazed boards drawn by E.B. Stanley Montefiore. Rebacked with front free endpaper restored and reinserted but lacking back free endpaper; cover rubbed and soiled. Price realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2007. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

At this time too, London-based Dean and Son mass-produced novelty Movable Toy Books, lavishly colored through innovative, oil-based chromolithography. Some reinforced moral and social norms through tabbed or venetian blind-like character transformations. Others featured cutout sections connected by ribbons folded flat which, dramatically with a flip of a flap raised sculptural paper “peepshows.”

From the 1880s, Raphael Tuck, in addition to lavishly lithographed die-cut paper dolls and movable paper toys, published almost 100 moveable books under the title Father Tuck. Many, in addition to pull tabs and peep-shows mechanisms, featured multilayered, three-dimensional illustrations.

‘The Frogs’ Picnic,’ a rare moveable pictorial disc with a window and two tabs, held by a wooden handle. Patent pending notice dated July 9, 1929 and copyright date of 1931 on the top disc of the transformation. A most amusing moveable, for the elaborateness of the reveals and the charm of the illustrations. The story text begins on the top disc and runs parallel to the left edge. For the continuation of the story, the reader pulls each of the three tabs from right to left so the sequence of captioned pictures on the concealed discs appear in the cutout window. The story concludes on the top disc, running parallel to the right edge. An extremely rare moveable in excellent condition, 12in. x 9in. With publisher’s original box with pictorial lid. Price realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

A decade later, Ernest Nister, based in Nuremburg, published sentimental creations in both German and English. Many feature multiple animating levers, circular pinwheel mechanics, or slatted, “dissolving,” peekaboo views.

Lothar Meggendorfer’s whimsical works, however, may contain the most innovative, ingenious paper mechanisms ever created. In many, intricate interlocking parts open eyes, drop jaws, extend arms, chop wood, catch fish, rock babies, and more, to the accompaniment of amusing verse. In others, single, wired, riveted pull tabs activate multiple (hidden) levers that animate as many as five illustrations simultaneously. International Circus, however, is Meggendorfer’s masterpiece. Though initially lying flat like any movable book, it unfolds, accordion-like, into a continuous, semicircular, six-act panorama. Lift-flaps on each of its panels reveal three-dimensional images of colorful, near-lifelike performers, spectators, circus acts, as well as an orchestra.

Lothar Meggendorfer’s ‘Internationaler Circus’ is considered by many to be his most important work. Chromolithographed panorama of six three-dimensional fold-down circus scenes. The book unfolds to form an elaborate circus scene including clowns, acrobats, horses, orchestra and spectators. First edition, Esslingen: J.F. Schreiber, 1887. Price realized $800 + buyer’s premium in 2008. Image courtesy PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Because these and all fragile movable books were enjoyed by eager little hands, surviving copies have often sustained smudges, nicks, dents, discoloring, missing tabs or tears. Those in prime condition are both rare and costly.

During World War I, publication of German movable books ceased. British creations reappeared in 1929, with S. Louis Giraud’s Express Children’s Annuals and Bookana Stories. These handcrafted “living models,” in addition to tabs, folds and flaps, feature page turns that spring up into imaginative, stand-alone, three-dimensional double-page spreads viewable from all angles. Other surprises abound. “The Circus Clown,” for instance, features a 3-D acrobat who, at page turn, not only loops a 3-D pole, but (stuck in a loop) continues looping long afterwards. These brightly colored, popular creations, though lacking delicacy and detail of earlier European ones, remain highly collectible.

During the Great Depression, New York’s Blue Ribbon Publishing Co. marketed movables as catchier “pop-ups,” heralding a new genre. These low-cost imprints, inspired by favorite fairy tale and Walt Disney characters, feature basic designs on coarse paper. Yet complete, rare, unused ones are quite desirable.

The ‘Pop-up’ Minnie Mouse, illustrated with three full-color, double-page pop-ups (two of which are on the endpapers) plus other illustrations by the staff of the Walt Disney Studios. 9½in. x 7¼in., original color pictorial boards. Plus two similar pop-ups books. Walt Disney, Ribbon Books, New York, 1933. Price realized: $200 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Through the 1950s and ’60s, Vojtech Kubasta, Czech artist, architect and paper engineer, created an astounding number of three-dimensional books featuring highly stylized, boldly colored, witty, imaginative themes. Some begin in conventional flat format, concluding with single, dramatic pop-up punches. Others illustrate story lines with profusions of novel, geometry-inspired paper cuts, folds, pull tabs and scaffolding. These create massive, complex visuals that not only leap off the page, but also extend beyond their borders.

From then on, pop-ups have flooded British and American markets. Unlike those of old, imagined, planned and produced single-handedly, up to 60 artisans design, engineer, print, pound, cut free, fold, then hand-assemble hundreds of components into a single creation.

‘The Dwindling Party,’ New York: Random House, 1982. First edition, large pictorial hardcover. Signed by author Edward Gorey beneath the title page flap. Rhyming verse accompanied by pop-ups illustrated by Edward Gorey, and engineered into 3-D by paper artist Ib Penick. All pop-ups and pull tabs complete and functional with no creases or tears. Note: Signed copies of this title are rare. Price realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Houston Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Scores depict simple peekaboo Disney, Harry Potter or Sesame Street themes. Others, far more intricate, explore adult topics like phobias, superstitions, nightmares or the Naughty Nineties. Those interested in trying their hand at paper mechanics may also enjoy pop-ups illustrating how to make pop-ups.