Jeepers, Creepers, a Peepshow!

One of the Rare Book Collection’s most unusual acquisitions this year has also proved to be one of the more challenging items to view: a perspective peepshow of an eighteenth-century print shop.

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The peepshow cards arranged without a display. Without a structure to separate the cards, the scene is flattened.

Peepshows are two-dimensional, printed or manuscript illustrated cards incorporating cut-outs that, when arranged together, form a three-dimensional scene. Peepshows have a long history as a form of popular entertainment. Examples of peepshows can be found in cultures across the world, but the genre gained widespread popularity in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Peepshows appeared in the streets, peddled by itinerant street showmen, and in the parlor, alongside paper dolls, board games, and other amusements for the evening hours.

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A single card from the peepshow. Each card contains many small details that contribute to the vibrancy of the complete scene.

Peepshows varied a great deal in their complexity. Very simple peepshows might consist only of a series of cards, while more elaborate displays incorporated lighting or special bi-convex lenses to enhance the illusion of three-dimensionality. Some peepshows used a thin, accordion-fold tissue along each side of the card series to connect the scene together—see, for example, this 1846 peepshow held at the Getty Research Institute. Other peepshows were designed to be set up in a custom box made of wood or metal. The box held the cards apart from one another and let in an appropriate level of light, allowing the viewer a peep inside the scene.

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Custom display built by Conservator Andrea Knowlton for viewing the peepshow cards.

Our perspective peepshow was probably intended to be viewed in such a box. The cards can, of course, be examined one at a time, but to see the full scene as intended, a custom display had to be built.

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Cards arranged in the custom display. Each card is supported upright and has enough room to maintain the integrity of the three-dimensional scene.

Conservator Andrea Knowlton rose to the challenge, creating this custom display. Though straightforward in its design, the execution of the stand took careful planning. Andrea first had to calculate how far apart each card should stand—too close and the details of some cards would be obscured, too far apart and the illusion of three-dimensionality would be ruined. Andrea also needed to ensure that the stand did not block out too much light. Finally, the stand needed to properly support each card upright and allow easy access to the cards so that they would not be damaged during set up or removal.

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Arranged properly, the cards in the peepshow give the illusion of a three-dimensional scene.

Our peepshow shows the interior of a print shop with surprising detail. At the front of the shop, a worker dampens paper to prepare it for the press. There are two presses depicted, each in a different stage of the printing process. The first press is being inked using ink balls while a second pressman readies the sheet of paper to be printed. At the second press, a pressman is pulling the bar to make an impression. Behind the press, the copy text is written out in a fair hand and given to the compositors, who can be seen at the back of the shop. Each compositor uses a composing stick to arrange moveable type—stored in the large, tilted cases—into words and sentences.

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Each peepshow card is rich with historical detail, such as the work practices and tools of the printing trade. In this card, the copyist is producing the copy text to give to the compositors; and a worker is hanging a printed sheet up to dry.

If you are interested in learning more about the operation of a common press, there are some wonderful demonstration videos online, like this series from the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, Belgium. Or, come visit us in Wilson Library to take a peep at the peepshow yourself.

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In addition to building a custom display for the peepshow, Andrea stabilized the delicate cut-outs on several cards, to ensure that they would not be damaged during use.

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