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    

Vintage 1970's Kohner Hanna Barbera Wally Gator Toy Figure Push Puppet Hong KongAntique Lenci Smoker PuppetProfessional Ventriloquist Dummy Puppet Angry Guy ! Jim Henson's Puppet Vintage Sesame Street Wilkins Coffee Tv Ads 1958 Toy RareVintage 1970's Kohner Hanna Barbera Touche Turtle Toy Push Puppet Hong KongAntique 19th Century Japanese/chinese Theatre Puppet Doll (for Restoration)3 Steiff (s) Jolly Hase Rabbit Hand Puppet, Molly & Original Teddy Bears W/tagsAntique Vintage Old Black Americana Doll Marionette Wood Character Ethnic Toy AsRare Pee-wee's Play House Friend Billy Baloney 18" Ventriloquist Puppet Axtell Owl - Large Puppet Perfect For Harry Potter Or Wizard ThemesVintage Pelham Blue Elephant Puppet, Original Box, Made In England1954 Jerry Mahoney Ventriloquist's Dummy W/box, Instructions & Original ReceiptMeat Puppets €Vintage Palitoy Jolly Jim Archie Andrews Ventriloquist Doll PuppetChina Old Folk Art Wood Hand Carved Clown Mask Puppet Wall Hanging Decoration StLot 50 Nintendo Pokemon Kid's Soft Vinyl Puppet Figure Doll Pikachu From Jpn 041937 Composition Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Doll In Orig. Clothes-needs WorkFamily Of Pillsbury Doughboy Finger Puppets Lot Of 6 Vintage12 Handmade Crochet Animal Finger Puppets With Bag - Look Waldorf & Montessori Vintage Munsters Herman Munster Hand PuppetGrandpa Munster-hand Puppet-great Shape-vibrant Colors-the Munsters-darn-darn!!!Bob Barker Disney Pinocchio Marionette1988 Land Before Time Set Of 6 Hand Puppets Ucs & Amblin Large Steiff 30" Arm Full Body Red Fox Puppet 1970s 3482/50 No Reserve Too Cool!Telco Disney Pinocchio Musical Singing Animated PuppetLot Of 200 Pokemon Kids Finger Puppet Figures From Japan!Muppet Hand Puppet Statler And Waldorf Very Rare!Bozart Marionette Purple UnicornRare 1960's Ideal Company Rowlf The Dog Muppet Puppet Jim Henson CreationAntique 19c Wrought Iron Puppet Theatre Cabinet With Spring Activated DoorsVintage, Howdy Doody, Composite Marionette, Puppet, Peter Puppet Playthings*telco Disney's Classic Pinocchio Marionette Singing Dancing Puppet Kids Adults*Vintage Presidential Jack In The Box Political Satire Puppet Tuulikkli & HinksVintage Steiff Bad Wolf Cloth Hand Puppet - Mean Looking - With Button & TagKohner Bros Push Puppet And Old Toy Collection, Kangaroo Tape Measure, Bull DogsProfessional Ventriloquist Figure (dummy), By Kenny Croes; New/never Used! One Week Only!!! Ooak Ventriloquist Figure/puppet/dummy AnnabelleVtg Set Of 4 H.k.k. 1958 Dennis The Menace Character Hand Puppets Toys Comics 1962 Dishonest John "dj" Talking Hand Puppet By Mattel In Box RareJimi Hendrix / Band Of Gypsys, Japan Puppet Cover Lp, Low Sale!!!2 Vintage Steiff Puppets Tiger And RabbitSwarovski Silver Crystal Figurine Clown Puppet Vintage Willie Talk Ventriloquist Doll Dummy Puppet (horsman) 24" Tall Exc!Kermit Frog Full Body Hand Puppet 20" Long, Jim Henson Muppets (applause) Mcgruff The Crime Fighting Police Dog Plush Hand Puppet Vintage1980's 26 In.Jim Shore Disney Traditions Mickey Mouse Marionette W/standHazelle's Talking Marionette. Vintage Airplane Control Marionette. Fairy. 1960'sHarley Quinn Marionette Doll!...never Opened!...perfect Shape!...c.o.a.!...Ventriloquist Dummy Jerry Mahony Dummy For Paul WinchellVintage 1988 Pizza Hut Land Before Time Dinosaur Puppets Complete Set Of 6Disney Puppet Series Chip And Dale Le Pin Lot 50 Nintendo Pokemon Kid's Soft Vinyl Puppet Figure Doll Pikachu From Jpn 01Stunning Punch & Judy Show Policeman. Professional Glove Puppet By Joe ParsonageRare Vintage My Toy Monkey W/ Fez Ventriloquist Dummy Doll Head, Rubber, 195824" Oliver Hardy~ventriloquist Dummy~doll~puppet~R & L Cereal Toys 1971 Puppet People Blue Billy Bones In Fine Made Up ConditionSteiff Loopy Wolf Hand Puppet Open Mouth With Teeth Vintage 18cm 7" TallLot Of 5 Marionette Puppets Porcelain Wood King Clown Pinocchio Guadeo PragueLtd Toy Stamp & Mixed Lot Of Four Marionette Puppet Dolls TlcVintage German Hand Puppets With Wood Carved Heads--lot Of Three