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 ...
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 cowboy marionette with red hair and a face covered in 48 freckles (one for each state in the union at the time). The show was an early adopter of product placement and television merchandising, which meant that there was a full range of Howdy Doody marionettes and ventriloquist puppets available for kids.
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.”
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