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the first half of the 20th century, the advent of radio and television helped to drive the final nails into the coffin of the paper theater. But during the previous century, paper theaters — also known as miniature or toy theaters — were a popular form of family entertainment in England, France, Germany, and other European countries, as well as in the United States. “A penny plain and two pence coloured” was a common refrain in the shops that sold them in Great Britain, referring to either black-and-white reproductions or hand-colored versions. And for the price, you could get everything you needed to mount your own productions at home, including the theaters — colored or not — along with cut-out paper figurines and play scripts. When constructed, the theaters often measured no more than about 15 by 19 inches in size, though they could be smaller or larger depending on the region where they were made.
In his 1887 collection of essays, Memories and Portraits, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson recounts his childhood fascination with paper theaters, as he grew up in the city of Edinburgh at a time when they were still at the height of their popularity. The author of Treasure Island recalled the scripts that went along with them, which included such titles as Aladdin, The Battle of Waterloo, Robin Hood, and The Terror of Jamaica. “In this roll-call of stirring names you read the evidences of a happy childhood,” he wrote. Every Saturday, Stevenson went to the shore to watch the ships in the Firth of Forth coming in to Edinburgh. “There stands, I fancy, to this day (but now how fallen!) a certain stationer’s shop at a corner of the wide thoroughfare that joins the city of my childhood with the sea.” In the shop window stood a toy theater depicting a forest scene with carousing robbers, and below it, bundles of scripts that promised drama and adventure, all of which fired Stevenson’s imagination. “And then to go within, to announce yourself as an intending purchaser, and, closely watched, be suffered to undo those bundles and breathlessly devour those pages of gesticulating villains, epileptic combats, bosky forests, palaces and war-ships, frowning fortresses and prison vaults — it was a giddy joy,” he wrote.
Paper theaters can still be found, now sold as novelties more than as a popular activity, and superlative examples are in museum collections and private collections across the world. In Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, a number of assembled theaters grace the hall leading to the museum’s Girard Wing, set in niches in the wall. “They’re perfect material for Alexander Girard to have collected because of his sense
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