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    

1980 Kenner Star Wars Yoda Hand Puppet Mint Unused In The BoxPelham Puppets "king" - 1963 Red CoatRare 1957 Handmade Punch & Judy Miniature Puppet 3d Framed Theatre 12cm X10cmDisney Pinocchio Musical Snow Globe With Pinnochio Puppet, Figurine, And Doll!!!Lladro Puppet Show #5736 Figurine Spain Boy Dog Cat Mint Retired''fats'' Magic Ventriloquist Figure Dummy Puppet Movie Horror.Orig 1960s Grandpa Munster Hand Puppet Vinyl Head Cloth Body20" Antique Composition Ventriloquist Doll W Cloth Body Pink Silk Clothes~~~Hand Crafted Ventriloquist's Doll Using 1967 Stamped Juro Novelty Co. HeadCharlie Mccarthy Dummy Ventriloquist Doll Rare Real Red Hair22" Large Axtell Expressions Amazing Ape Gorilla Hand Puppet Monkey ChimpanzeePremium 31" Ventriloquist Doll Spike - Genuine Maher Studios Fright Zone Tree Puppet Masters Of The Universe He-man Lot MotuLester Willie Tyler Ventriloquist Dummy Doll Goldberger African American 27"Vintage Juro Novelty Charlie Mccarthy Dummy Ventriloquist Puppet Doll 1977 !Axtell Silly Sue Ventriloquist Puppet2 Kooky Spooky's Glow In Dark Ghost Toy Vintage Finger PuppetsVintage 1960s Rare Ideal Hanna Barbera Hand Puppet So-so From Tv Show ExcellentVentriloquist Dummy DollDisney Pinocchio Desk Clock Business Card Holder Marionette PuppetLot Of 9 Playskool/hasbro 1984 & 1986 Glow Worm Glo Friends Finger Puppet FigureCharlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Doll Witch King Queen Czech Marionette Puppets - Handmade String Puppets From PragueVintage 33" Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Puppet DollVintage Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist's Doll - 1977 -28" TallWilly Tyler Ventriloquist 26" Lester Dummy, African American Black Doll Vintage Composition Ventriloquist Doll Head For Repair/restoration~c. Mccarthy?Vintage Wooden Dancing Felix The Cat Thumb Push Puppet Schylling Ftcp IncProfessional Muppet Glee Style Hand Puppet Grandma Character For StageBoglins "dwork" Vintage Mattel Monster Puppet 1987 Used No BoxVintage Triumph The Insult Comic Dog Puppet Plush Boxed Toy In Good ConditionOrig 1960s Popeye Brutus Figure Toy Hand Puppet Vinyl Head Cloth Body3 Orig 1960s Wizard Of Oz Hand Puppets Tin Man Lion ScarecrowVintage 1960's Ideal Toys Batman Cloth Hand Puppet1998 - 50 Years Of Sid And Marty Krofft Auction Book - Hr Pufnstuf PuppetsKermit Plush Hand Puppet 19"Danny O'day Ventriloquist Dummy VintageYu Yu Hakusho Tcg Complete League Set #1 - Puppet Card Set Lot Of Vintage Halloween Witch Hand Puppet Cat Witch On BroomOrig 1960s Gumby Toy Hand Puppet Vinyl Head Cloth BodyFolkmanis Full Size Snowy Owl Puppet With Baby Owl Finger PuppetPlush Wolf Animal Hand Puppets Child Kids Educational Toy Preschool KindergartenVintage 1988 Halloween Boglins Bog O Bones And Blobkin Hand Puppet Rare In Box Vintage Juro Novelty Charlie Mccarthy Dummy Ventriloquist Puppet Doll, Complete!Fisher Price Vintage 1978 Henson "animal" Muppet Full Body Hand Puppet #854Dragon Hand Puppet: Manhattan Toy UsedVintage String Puppet Doll (woman)Howdy Doody Ventriloquist Doll (made In China)15" Melissa & Doug Fireman Hand Puppet PreownedVentriloquist PuppetFolkmanis Parrot Hand Puppet 25"Pez Head Juice Topper 41 Finger Puppets Lady Bug Panda Shark Bubble Man LionBatman " Puppets Of Crime" 5 Figure Set Mib By BatmanRare Vintage Six Million Dollar Man Hand Puppet Argentina Rubber 1970s FranziVintage Pizza Hut Beauty And The Beast Hand Puppet Set SealedLakeshore Learning Zippy & Moe Puppets, What Would You Do Cards, EucVintage 1988 Dankin Daniel Striped Tiger Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Hand PuppetVintage Gaudeo Czech Puppets MarionetteRare Vintage Walt Disney Productions Mini - Pinocchio Marionette Look!Vintage Marionette String Puppet Oriental Man W/ Wooden Hand Painted Ornate