Polyrama Panoptique













Hi, my name is Mara Bosboom and I work for the Toy Museum in Deventer, the Netherlands. I recently completed a one-month internship at the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in England. As I have done a lot of work on optical toys in my own museum, my job at the V&A was to sort out the shelves of optical toys in the Museum of Childhood’s Store Six. The following article presents my research on two of the children’s optical toys in the V&A’s collection.


The lines of what is considered to be an optical toy are quite blurred, slipping over into the realm of paper theatres, myrioramas and image composition puzzles. I am limiting this article to discussing two of the more exceptional paper-based items, the “Polyrama Panoptique” and the “Geographical Panorama.”

Optics have always fascinated people, from making shadows appear on a wall to the camera obscura in the 13th century, which would allow you to see a projected image of the outside world upside down, to the creation of a working magic lantern by Christian Huygens in 1659, which showed magnified projected images, sometimes with movement. Most optical toys were inventions for adults that gradually made their way from entertainment at fairs to the nursery.

Optical toys for children became really popular in Victorian times, when miniature magic lanterns and peepshows were created to educate and amuse them. One of these optical toys is the Polyrama Panoptique. This is a viewing device for day and night views. Day and night views and perspective prints were part of society from the 17th century onwards. These prints could be seen through a variety of viewing devices, such as a book camera obscura, a zograscope, or an optical box.

When viewed through a magnifying lens these perspective prints gave the impression of three dimensions. The title of the view was often printed above it in inverted writing, which would revert once seen through the lens and mirror of the viewing device. Well-to-do people bought such viewing machines for their families and began collecting optical prints to show at home.

The V&A Museum collection holds several Polyramas Panoptique dating about 1820-1830. One such item is the Museum object Misc. 29-1967 (shown left). It has its own set of day and night views tucked away in the box. The viewer looks through a small lens into the interior space of the box. The influx of light can be controlled by moving the panels at the top and the back of the box, allowing the viewer to change the perspective prints from day to night.

 This movement of time, fast-forwarding from day to night, is an extraordinary sensation. It is as though you are in a time-travelling machine­—suggesting what is must feel like to be in Dr. Who’s “Tardis.”

The most basic of the day and night views (shown below) are made by piercing the perspective print and then sticking bits of coloured paper behind the holes, thus creating the illusion of streets lit up at night, or fireworks, or even a volcano erupting. Backlighting the more sophisticated images brings on a whole change of scene. In seconds we are transported from a park in Paris to a circus scene, now travelling not only through time, but also through space.

 The peepshow developed from these perspective prints. In seeking to improve the illusion of depth, from the 1600s onwards, the peepshow developed from a box for viewing perspectives to one for viewing dissected images. The dissected images were placed behind each other;  viewing them through the small hole or magnifying lens created the illusion of three dimensions. Initially used at fairs to transport the public to another world, peepshows did not really came into their own until the 1800s.

By the 1820s, engravers started to put sheets together to create accordion-like peepshows commemorating historical events, such as the opening of the Thames tunnel in 1843 (top). A lot of these peepshows were taken home as souvenirs.

 A hybrid peepshow and theatre that shows historical and geographical events to children is the Geographical Panorama. It gives an illusion of depth by placing the smallest segment of the image in front with the larger ones behind. The one shown on page 5, Number Misc.1-1955 Geographical Panorama Exhibiting Characteristic Representations of the Scenery and Inhabitants of Various Regions was made in 1822 by publishers Harvey and Darton of Gracechurch Street in London.

From a Quaker background, Harvey and Darton were known for their educational books and paper-based toys such as puzzles and board games. They aimed to educate children with adventures based on fact. This panorama definitely fits the bill as four of the images are based on the engravings of John Webber. He accompanied Captain James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific Ocean from 1776-1779. Unfortunately, Captain Cook was killed by disgruntled natives on this voyage, but Webber managed to return to England and publish his engravings in 1784.

 There are five other images in the panorama. These  were made by Elizabeth Barton Hack, who contributed images to several other Harvey and Darton publications. Her mother, Maria Hack, wrote the booklet accompanying the Geographical Panorama. Though devilishly tricky to set up, once the scenes are in place you could travel around the world from your nursery.

 I hope that sharing my love for optical toys will inspire you to see the ones at the Museum of Childhood, where many more optical toys wait to be researched and explored.

I am indebted to Richard Balzer and Werner Nekes who, through their work on optical toys, provided me with a lot of the information.


Our thanks to Mara Bosboom of the Deventer Toy Museum for kindly allowing us to reprint this article. Mara can be contacted at:  

And thanks also to Alice Sage of the V&A Museum of Childhood, London, England, for providing us with the images for this article. The V&A Museum of Childhood is located in Bethnal Green, Cambridge Heath Rd, London E2 9PA. 

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