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]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vntg Original Steiff Cat Mohair Hand Puppet With Ear Button And Tag C1960Vntg Original Steiff Leopard Mohair Hand Puppet With Ear Button And Tag C1960Vntg Original Steiff Fox Mohair Hand Puppet With Button Tag And Label C1950sVntg Original Steiff Leo Lion Mohair Hand Puppet With Paper Neck Tag C1960Rare Marionette Theater Tin & Celluloid Clockwork Kuramochi Ck Japan O/box WorksAntique 1925 Felix Cat Schoenhut Wood Jointed Figure Puppet Pat SullivanMicronauts Marionette 1987 Original Inked Sketch Michael Golden 5" X 8.5" NiceVentriloquist Dummy Bounty Hunter3 Vintage 28" Jimmy Nelson's Danny O'day Dummy Ventriloquist Doll One Of A Kind Professional Human Hand Monster PuppetHazelle's Special Talking Marionette #302 Cow Hand, Vintage 1952-58Steiff Hen Hand Puppet All Ids Ean 6722/17Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist DummyVintage 1989 Pee Wee Herman 26'' Ventriloquist DollSet Of 6 Vintage Wood Toy Pull String Puppets In The Box From A Local EstateRetired Swarovski Austrian Crystal Puppet #7550 Signed Glass Figurine W Box Coa Vintage Street Sharks Fighting Hand Shark Puppet Ripster Street Wise Design '94Ncis Bert The Hippo Farting Hand Puppet Folkmanis HippopotamusAxtell Amazing Apes Collection/gorilla 32" Collectors Item Retired PuppetFolkmanis 13" Horned Owl Hand Puppet Plush Stuffed Animal ToyHazelle's Special Talking Marionette #314 Rodeo Rosie, Vintage 1955-56Detective Comics #583 Dc Batman 1st Scarface & Ventriloquist Nm- No Reserve!!Old Classic Ventriloquist Charlie Mccarthy Dummy Puppet Doll W/ SuitcaseStar Wars 13" Yoda Large Rubber Hand Puppet Lucas Film 1999 Vintage 1960s Pelham Puppets Pinocchio Marionette Original Box Made In EnglandVintage 1980 Original Star Wars Esb Yoda Hand Puppet + Box Kenner 69390Vintage Felix The Cat Wood Thumb Push Collapsible Toy Puppet Rare CollectibleVintage Toy 1966 Batman Hand Puppet By Ideal Toy CompanyVintage Toys Disney Character Mini Puppets Bambi Donald And Dumbo Made Hong KongGargoyle Hand Puppet W/ Wings Folkmanis Puppets 10" 1977 Juro Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Doll Dummy With Case Vintage GoldbergerVintage Howdy Doody Wooden Toy Marionette In The Original Display BoxDisney Pinocchio Puppet Kersa Big Bad Wolf Hand Puppet Carved Wood Head HandmadeShonen Jump Naruto Puppet Attack Kankuro Action Figure , Mattel 20071960s Knucklehead Smiff Ventriloquist Doll In Box By Juro Jerry Mahoney's BuddyKermit The Frog Full Hand Puppet 28" With Bendy FingersVintage Hand Puppet. Seriously Creepy Clown. #7 Of 7. 1800'sDisney Traditions Jim Shore Pinocchio 13-1/2” Puppet Complete W/box + Instr.Rare Negro / Black American Boxing Push Puppet Toy / Wakouwa Champs Sign / LabelAll 6 Land Before Time Pizza Hut Puppets 1980's Great Condition Television ShowSwarovski Crystal Puppet (clown) Retired #a 7550 Nr 000 003 Walt Disney Peter Puppet Marionette March Hare Alice In Wonderland 1940-50's Steiff Trampili Puppet All Ids,2 Hang Tag Ean 2508421950s Vintage Howdy Doody Marionette Puppet DollVntg Hand Painted Carved Wood Articulated Mountain Man Puppet ToyLot Of 7 Folkmanis Hand Hand Finger Puppets Wolf Fox Flower Princess GiraffeBethany Lowe Christmas Puppet Boy...designed By Vickie SmyersVintage 1981 Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Yoda Hand Puppet Loose - KennerDepartment 56 Nettie Quinn Puppets & Marionettes And Delivering Coal For The Hea1960s Era Wood Pelham Noddy Puppet All Original Parts! Made In England No BoxFolktails Folkmanis Hand Puppet Man Boy Human Stuffed Plush Full Body 24"Original Dan Payes Ventriloquist DummiesVintage Hand Puppet. Skeleton. #6 Of 7. 1800'sInteresting Vintage Sicilian Puppet Marionette Cricchio Palermo ~knight Rinaldo?Jerry Mahoney & Knucklehead Smiff Ventriloquist Dummy Box!! Rare!!!Vtg 1962 Mattel Mr Ed Talking Horse Hand Puppet - Works !Vintage 10" X10" Steiff Rooster / Chicken Hand Puppet ~ Scarce Estate FindJimmy Nelson's Danny O'day 29" Ventriloquist Dummy / Puppet1930's Vintage Clown / Pierrot Wooden Marionette Parts 3 Heads & Parts Creepy