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    

1950s Happy The Clown Puppet Show W. Pinnocio B/o Toy Battery OperatedRoyal Doulton Figure ' The Puppet Maker ' Hn2253 *36Professional Ventriloquist Dummy Puppet SheldonClassic Triang Wakouwa Push Up Wooden Collapsing Toy Dog Thumb Puppet C1950sVintage "english"ventriloquist Figure/puppet/doll/propJigsaw's Saw Puppet Doll Autographed By "amanda" (shawnee Smith) & "dr. Gordon"Vintage Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Dummy,puppet,doll-juro.1977 Puppet 30"Boglins Dwork Large Vintage Hand Puppet With Box Mattel 1987 Excellent ConditionDeath Studios Zombie Dog Puppet Not Available Nr!Hummel Goebel 2209/b - Puppet Pal,boy With Puppets, Tmk8 Oe !!"puppet" Bow Tie Used In Jigsaw's Saw 3 LairVtg Meat Puppets T-shirt, Alternative Rock 1990 90's Size LargeRare Bob Baker Marionette Limited Edition Witch/old Hag Walt Disney's Snow WhiteSuperb China Folk Art Old Handwork Wood Man Statue Puppet Decoration St45r27Vintage Collected Pure Handmade Wood Male Puppet Robot Spirituality Statue Huge Lot Of 23 Hand Puppets Vintage Brands Anva, Munchie, Folktails, DisneyBali Java Indonesia Wayang Puppet Theatre Hindu Epic Hero God Rama Batik Yqz5 Lbt Land Before Time Rubber Puppets Littlefoot Cera Spike Petrie Sharptooth Master Ventriloquist's Dummy With Mortimer Snerd Head In Roy Rogers OutfitWoodbaby Dragon Shoulder PuppetChina Folk Art Hand Carved Fire Dragon Fancy Cowhide Shadow Puppet Ot45m22Vintage Mortimer Snerd Ventriloquist DollCollectible China Old Folk Art Hand Carved Man Head Wood Statue Puppet St45r086 Pelham Puppets Vintage Disney Pluto Goofy Pinnochio Plus More Great Shape!Dollhouse Miniature Artisan Signed David Krupick Punch And Judy Puppet Theater1988 ? Pizza Hut ? Land Before Time Hand Puppets Complete Set Of 6 ?Gymboree Cozy Owl Striped Hat, Finger Puppet Gloves 5-8Old Ventriloquist DollHummel Goebel 2209/a - Puppet Love, Girl With Puppets, Tmk8 Oe !!China Hand Carved Clown Old Wood Mask Puppet Wall Hanging Decoration St45r1914" Pro Puppets/full Body Hand Puppet Cindy1950s Howdy Doody Time Puppet 7.5" Figure W Box-all Org Cloths- Vintage Tv ToyVintage 1960's Danny O'day----jimmy Nelson Ventriloquist Dummy,puppet, DollHorror Classics Mystery Mini ** Billy The Puppet ** Saw Funko Vinyl Figure3- 1/2oz Northland Puppet Minnow Ice Fishing LuresDisney Puppet Series Chip And Dale Le Pin Rare *talking* 1st Edition Medicom Sideshow Saw Doll Puppet - Life SizeCharlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Doll Dummy Puppet Juro Novelty 1977 HalloweenNew- Folkmanis Puppets Long-wool Sheep Puppet- Free ShippingVintage Hazelle's "blue Fairy" Marionette String Puppet #417 Vg ConditionVintage 29" Mortimer Snerd 1968 Ventriloquist Doll Juro Novelty Co.Vintage Wooden Siltoys Italian Push Button Puppet Donkey In Original BoxVintage Ventriloquist Doll With 2 Heads Horseman DollsOld China Folk Art Hand Openwork Carving Girl Cowhide Shadow Puppet Ot45m30Mickey Mouse Puppet Slipper Pals Size 6-7 Toddler1pc Tigger Cartoon Animal Baby Gift Plush Rattles Toys Hand Puppet Handbell1940's Pinocchio Composition Puppet Doll Disney Ideal CompanyVintage Pelham Ventriloquist Puppet Dummy Walter From EstateCollectible China Folk Art Hand Carved Clown Wood Old Mask Puppet St45r20Vintage Fisher Price Jim Henson Muppets Animal Puppet Pre-owned Collectable China Ancient Puppet Handmade Carving Characters Superb Dandy - Im Your Puppet Original Uk Down Town 45 ClipVintage 1958 Walco Bead Co. Pipe Cleaner "pixie Puppets" W/instruction SheetConfrontation - Morbid Puppet - Rare/oop (mvrg 05) - Nib10pcs/1set Zoo Farm Animal Finger Puppets Plush Cloth Toys For Bed Story TellPuppet Show Stand With Family / Children People Figures House / School PlaymobilBatman Puppets Of Crime Set And Gotham City Bank Playset Both Misb(bt)Mst3k - Crow T Robot Puppet Replica - Full Size - Mystery Science Theater 3000Red Dwarf Mr Flibble Hand Puppet Official Bbc Release -very Rare-Animatronic Puppet Remote Control Frog Professional Puppet Puppet Ministry