Though similar in appearance to dolls, puppets were specifically designed for performance rather than play. In fact, this type of toy has been used in theatrical productions for thousands of years, as shadow puppets, hand puppets, marionettes, and ventriloquist dummies.

Some of the earliest puppets were made from cut paper or cardboard. These shadow puppets had jointed limbs to simulate lifelike movements when manipulated before a light source. Early versions of this style of puppet came from China, where shadow puppet troupes first flourished nearly 2,000 years ago. The invention was supposedly inspired after the death of an imperial concubine in the second century B.C. To soothe the grief-stricken Emperor Han Wu, his attendants recreated his wife in shadow form, using a puppet made from hinged pieces of leather.

In Europe, though laws during the Middle Ages often prohibited human actors from portraying certain characters or engaging on stage in particular types of behavior, puppets were given full license to play everyone from popes to prostitutes. The earliest shadow puppets were typically made by artisans like George Bestelmeier, who used his puppets to act out traditional fairy tales or literary works such as "Don Quixote." Sometimes called “pantins” or jumping-jacks, these flat cardboard characters had movable limbs controlled by strings, a precursor to the marionette. In some regions during the 18th and 19th centuries, pantins were outlawed because of the bizarre belief that young women could become pregnant merely by playing with them.

True marionette puppets have numerous cords running to their three-dimensional appendages, which can be manipulated from above to mimic human movement. Because of their nimble lifelike actions, marionettes became the standard for puppet stage performances across Asia and Europe. The popularity of these puppet shows also spurred the production of palatial theaters in miniature, from William West's printed paper versions to others lavishly decorated with velvet curtains and oil lamps.

The first hand puppets were made mostly from cloth, with heads and hands of wood, composition, or pottery, similar to early doll construction. The most famous hand puppet characters evolved from 19th-century British street shows based on a comedic duo called “Punch and Judy.” Punch was actually the descendent of an Italian character from the Commedia del’Arte known as Pulcinella, who also appeared in a French production called the Théâtre Guignol. These toy puppets featured carved wood or papier-mâché heads, simple cloth bodies, and small dangling legs. Originally aimed at an adult audience, Punch and Judy quickly developed a loyal following among children, and consequently, its storylines grew more slapstick and nonsensical.

Unlike hand puppets, ventriloquist dummies have fully formed bodies and mouths that are moved in synch with human speech. One of the most well-known ventriloquist dolls was modeled after Edgar Bergen’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy, who became popular for his radio, television, and film performances during the 1930s. Wearing a small tuxedo complete with a top hat and monocle, Charlie McCarthy puppets were produced by many established doll companies like Fleischaker & Baum.

From 1947 to 1960, Howdy Doody became an American sensation after his starring role in children’s television and radio shows. Voiced by Buffalo Bob Smith, Howdy Doody was a goofy...

The world of puppetry was changed forever after Jim Henson debuted his “Sam & Friends,” a precursor to “The Muppets Show,” on a Washington, D.C., television station in 1955. Henson’s skill at creating wacky puppets with incredibly believable personalities helped establish Kermit and his Muppets crew as the coolest puppets on TV. Their show would eventually lead to the eternally popular “Sesame Street” series, launched in 1969. Other renowned TV puppets would follow, including Shari Lewis’ memorable Lamb Chop and the cast of Mr. Rogers' “Neighborhood of Make Believe.”

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

40+ Lot Animal Hand Puppets Folkmanis Bull Frog Mantis Octopus Eagle Doctor MoreProfessional Ventriloquist Dummy Puppet FatsThree Stooges - Moe, Larry, Curly - Hand Puppets By Ideal, Late 1950s Sealed!Jimi Hendrix. Band Of Gypsys. Puppet Sleeve.orig Uk Lp Vinyl.1970.track 2406 002American Girl Retired Addy Church Fair Puppet Show - Complete Rare*rare* Jimi Hendrix "band Of Gypsys" Uk Track **puppet Cover**Vintage 1950s Happy The Clown Puppet Show W Pinnocio Yonezawa Made In Japan Bm17Antique Halloween Vintage Parade Puppet Bobble Head Toy Whistle Victorian RareDrool Large Vintage 1980’s Mattel Boglins Monster Hand Puppet With BoxLarge Vintage Hand Made Ventriloquist DollRare Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Dummy Pin Fur Clip-moving MouthFrozen Anna Elsa Kristoff Olaf Kids Role Play Plush Finger Puppet Doll Toys 4pcsVintage Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist DollPro Vent Figure Detweiler With Case VentriloquistVentriloquist Dolls. Lionel Polar Express Cars Set Of 3 Train Passenger Coach Puppet Obs 6-31960 NbVintage 1950s 3 Three Stooges Larry Hand Puppet Original Clothes And Color YqzCirca 1920's Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Dummy Doll W/ Original Clothes Ventriloquist Dummy Goldberger Charlie Mccarthy 30" Doll Puppet 1977Ventriloquist DummyVintage Doll Ventriloquist Doll Puppet Dummy Toy CollectibleAntique 30's Marionette Lot Depression Wwii Wood Mache Folk Art German-americanBoglin Drool 1987 Vintage Rare Puppet Mattel Boglins Rare Christmas Present Punch And Judy Puppet - Supreme Magic FigureBoglin "vlobb" Collectors Hand Puppet. Rare.Rare Rudolph Push Puppets/christmas Ornaments Complete Deluxe Set (12) + SleighZims Heirloom 11" Nutcracker " Puppet Maker"Collectible China Old Folk Art Superb Carved Clown Wood Puppet Statue St45x29Super Boxed Villeroy Boch Christmas Tea Light Holder Puppets / Gingerbread HouseNorthland Fishing Tackle - Puppet Minnows - Lot Of 25 - NewVintage 1950s 3 Three Stooges Curly Hand Puppet Original Clothes And Color YqzVintage 1932 Japanese Puppet Emperor Of Manchukuo & Ambassador China Press PhotoVintage Howdy Doody Marionette String PuppetLot Of 23 Adorable Assorted Animal Finger Puppets1960 Danny O'day Ventriloquist Doll Juro Novelty Co.Steiff Alligator Vintage Hand Puppet "gaty" W/ Original Label Mint Pc Girl Ventriloquist = Little Billee & His Girl,1922 (y.yaulih ? Burnley Photo)Folkmanis Stage Puppet €Vintage 1966 Mattel The Monkees Talking Hand 4 Head Puppet W/org Box Davy PeterVintage 1930's Puppet Emperor Of Manchukuo Henry Pu-yi China Portrait PhotoSuperb China Shanxi Folk Art Hand Carved Tiger Cowhide Shadow Puppet Ot46m111976-1978 Fisher Price Muppet Animal Hand PuppetChristmas Children Show Puppet Ernest Nister London 1905 Must See !!!Vintage Jerry Mahoney Ventriloquist Doll By Paul Winchell From Gram's AtticThe Land Before Time Rubber Hand Puppets Vintage Pizza Hut 1988 Set4 Land Before Time Dinosaur Rubber Hand Puppets 1988 Pizza Hut Good ConditionCollectible Old China Folk Art Hand Carved Clown Wood Mask Statue Puppet St45x21Kermit The Frog Muppet Full Body Hand Puppet,proffesional Black Rods & Sleeve Custom Made Greenmonster Puppet - Professional Use - Muppets Ships NowNew 20'ft Inflatable Air Shaker Fly Sky Puppet Green +1pc 1.5hp Air Blower ComboVintage Effanbee Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Doll 1930's Original 20" Man From Uncle Illya Kuryakin Hand PuppetMattel's 60s Bozo The Clown Doll & Puppet W/ Rare Plastic Car Tote. Animated Christmas Santa's North Pole Workshop Puppet Theater Mrs Claus ElectricBambi €Vintage 1950's Plastic Finger Puppets X3 Quirky Retro Toys Unique Christmas GiftTelco Disney Christmas Pinocchio Singing/dancing Animated Puppet MarionettePee Wee Herman's Pal Billy Baloney 18 Inch Ventriloquist Doll Matchbox 1988 RareAntique Dancing Toy Golliwog Bellhop Puppet Black Americana Folk Art Tramp ArtCharlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Dummy Doll