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    

Rppc Ventriloquist With 2 Dummies "sambo" And "dutch" Claude M Garrigus 1912Vintage Toy Push Button Puppet Lot Of Three1968 Hasbro Kooky Spooky Ghosts Finger Puppets Daddy Brother Tina Baby #bh24Old Tin Wyandotte Gun W/cowboy *cowboy Clicker *finger Puppet *vintage ToyVtg 1930's/ 40's Ventriloquist Doll Puppet 18" With PinsAxtell Latex Frog Puppet1964 Herman Munster Doll Puppet With Legs Mattel Ventriloquist Dummy Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist DollVintage Puppet PelhamVintage Paul Winchell Jerry Mahoney Ventriloquist Dummy Doll Tlc/parts/repair Vintage Antique Howdy Doody, Clarabell, And Bluster Marionette Dolls Lot Of 3Vintage-juro/eegee/goldberger Co. Howdy Doody Dummy Doll Ventriloquist 1972Vintage Halloween Monsters Devil Plastic Hand Puppet Ventriloquist Dummy Mortimer Snerd Glow In The Dark Vintage Pizza Hut Casper The Friendly Ghost Hand Puppets 1995Precious Moments-disney Puppet Show-pooh, Piglet, PuppyVintage Donald Duck Composition Marionette By Pelham Puppets EnglandVery Rare Vintage Wood Push Puppet Elsie The Cow Advertising Kohner? NeAntique Santa Finger Puppet Pelham Puppets Hansel & GretelGoldberger Ventriloquist Doll "howdy Doody", Cloth Body,vinyl Face & Hands, 25"1988 Set Of 7 Land Before Time Plastic Vinyl Hand Puppets LittlefootDisney Epcot Pin Celebration 2001 Stromboli & Pinocchio Puppet Le 3000Land Before Time **little Foot** Pizza Hut Puppet 1988Star Wars-1980-esb-yoda-hand Puppet-misb-flawless Box-clean-vintage-afa It-c/90Effanbee Charlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist 20" Doll 1930'sBozart Marionette Toy Puppets By Artist 3 For 1 (730)Professional Ventriloquist Puppet ---- Muppet Type---full Body Type Or 1/2 Body Dragon Shoulder Puppet, Movable HeadNot Don Post Propmasters Uncle Charlie Hand Puppet Halloween Prop Ghost ZombieDisney's Magic Puppets Lot Of 15 Winnie The Pooh Peter Pan Tinkerbell With BoxesCharlie Mccarthy Ventriloquist Dummy1960 Ties In Great ShapeDisney Traditions Donald Duck Marionette -jim Shore Enesco -rare -stand IncludedFao Schwarz Muppet Puppet Screen Used Zombie Baby Prop Puppet - Crawling Dead And VdVintage Paper Mache Hand Made Painted Halloween Devil String PuppetOriginal Bozo The Clown "talking Bozo" Hand Puppet - Larry Harmon's Storage #aLakeshore Learning Kids Hand Puppets Multi-ethnic Lets Talk Collection Whatnot Workshop Blue PuppetMelissa & Doug Police Officer, Cy Wren, Hand Puppet Policeman Movable Mouth 14"Two Jurassic Park The Lost World T-rex & Raptor Dinosaur Rubber Puppets Works!Fright Zone Perfect Puppet Masters Of The Universe He-man Horde Lot Motu RareIdeal Toys, Original Tv Favorites Hand Puppet , Wierd Harold. Dated 1973, 1966 Batman Hand PuppetTelco Motionettes Disney Classics Pinocchio Singing Marionette Christmas Htf EucVintage Rubber Uglies Jiggler Lot Of 4 - Hong Kong - Finger Puppet Toys 2"Steiff Vintage Hand Puppet Young Lion With IdMulticultural PuppetsVintage Pufnstuf Witchie Poo Witch Hand Puppet Remco 1970Hand Puppet Lot Of 7 Cone Head Puppet Show Swarovski Crystal Figurine 217207 - Puppet Clown W/ Box 1960's Hazelle Robin Marionette Puppet, BatmanHopalong Cassidy Hand Puppet Emmett Kelly Ventriloquist Doll Folkmanis Leopard Puppet 21" Long Full Body Plush Animal Gently Used2 Good Vintage Original English Pelham Puppets Dutch Girl & Angel FairySteiff Vintage Lion Hand Puppet (no Tag)**very Rare** Vintage 1998 Catdog Nickelodeon Mattel Puppet Double Sided Cat Dog1996 Mask Illusions School Boy Tooth Missing With Backpack Rubber Hand Puppet