Long before cardboard VR viewers, there were paper peepshows: pocket-sized stage sets with illustrated backdrops and paper cut-out scenes, which expand like accordion books to create an illusion of depth when you peer through eyeholes. Originating in Austria and Germany in the 1820s, they soon became popular throughout Europe as souvenirs. Made of paper and cloth, many pictured majestic landmarks, like the Thames Tunnel and the Crystal Palace, or historic events, like Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Moscow and Queen Victoria’s coronation. Though “peepshow” has accrued a seedy meaning over the years, the paper peepshows of yore were all safe for work.
Now, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has acquired the world’s largest collection of paper peepshows — more than 360 of them — spanning nearly 300 years and 12 different countries. They were gifted by private collectors Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner under the Cultural Gifts Scheme, which allows people to donate works of art or artifacts to public collections in exchange for a tax breaks.
“Peepshows were 19th century virtual reality,” Catherine Yvard, special collections Curator at the National Art Library, V&A, said in a statement. “Peeping into one of these tunnel-books is like stepping into another world, traveling through time and space. In an instant you can join Napoleon on the Island of St. Helena or a rowdy masquerade on London’s Haymarket. They offer wonderful insights into social history.”
Like phenakistoscopes and zoetropes, peepshows entranced Victorian audiences with optical illusion and fantastical illustration. The oldest paper peepshow in the collection is Teleorama No. 1, by H. F. Müller, dating from 1824 or 1825. Made in Austria, it features a fairytale garden leading to a mansion. Some are as small as matchboxes, like “L’Onomastico,” from Italy in 1900, which expands to nearly eight inches long, revealing a street celebration.
Many of these optical toys catered to Victorian England’s obsession with the Crystal Palace, the massive cast-iron and plate-glass exhibition hall built in Hyde Park in 1851. One peepshow pictures the Crystal Palace’s glittering facade, bedecked in flags from around the world. Through an eyehole, you see its bustling interior, where 14,000 exhibitors gathered for the Great Exhibition to see the latest technologies poised to push the Industrial Revolution further still. The construction of the Thames tunnel, by father and son duo Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is also a popular peepshow theme.
A British boîte d’optique — one of the precursors to the peepshow — is also included in the collection. It consists of a mahogany box with a lens to view prints. Like today’s Google Cardboard, these curiosities were developed to be mass-manufactured and available to the public at a low cost. “Considering that most of them would have been made quite cheaply,” Yvard said, “it is a miracle that so many have survived.”
The collection of peepshows will soon be digitized and available to search online on the National Art Library Catalogue and on ‘V&A Search the Collections’. Anyone can view the peepshows in person by appointment at the V&A’s National Art Library.