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.
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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.”