December 7, 2011
Paper poetry: The colorful world of vintage pop-up, movable and toy books (with slide show)
Polly Hopkins has the rosy face of an early-19th century belle awaiting suitors, but wait — switch paper bodies and she becomes Tommy Tompkins, a moody, flower-picking dandy.
“Promenade de Longchamps, Optique #4” is a long cardboard box of hand-painted miniatures. But look through the hole at the front and this “tunnel book” shows a detailed boulevard with townspeople, horses, carriages and footmen leading off to the horizon.
Illustrated postcard-style views of Queen Victoria’s coronation and parade through London don’t stop at a single scene or two — they unfold 21 times over four feet to show the entire royal procession in all its glamour.
These are the sort of pleasant surprises awaiting viewers of a new UW Libraries Special Collections exhibit in Suzzallo Library called Merry Company: Pop-ups, Movables & Toy Books, which runs through March 16, 2012.
You can’t touch them, but your inner child will wish you could.
The exhibit, of about 150 pieces — some modern but a few dating back to the 17th century — was curated with pride and affection by Sandra Kroupa, book arts and rare book curator for Special Collections. But much of the exhibit comes from the extraordinary collection of Pamela Harer of Seattle, who has sought rare books for decades.
“Historically, pop-up and movable books were intended to delight, excite and charm,” Kroupa said in the preface to the exhibit catalog, written and compiled by Harer. “Probably the main clientele were children but it is difficult for me to think adults of the period were not enchanted by the magical qualities of these books just as adults are today.”
Later, talking with Harer and others about the exhibit, Kroupa said, “If you want to study the history of the book, you cannot avoid looking at the history of children’s books,” even though they were considered insufficiently academic by many scholars.
“We have a huge children’s literature collection, and all the best stuff has come from Pamela,” Kroupa said. Though many other older books are worn and in poor shape, “Pamela’s materials are in wonderful condition,” she said. “You can study the paper and the binding and the printing. She has really helped.
“We sort of had half a collection … for years I had been collecting alphabet books the modern book artists were making. I said some years ago, ‘Some day I will meet someone who is collecting the historical things and we will make a big collection’ — and she showed up at my door.”
Harer attends antiquarian book fairs (Seattle’s is excellent, she said) looking to expand her collections. “A lot of the dealers know me and will have put something aside,” she said, “I don’t have to go searching for them.” She said some dealers may buy an item “with the condition that if I don’t buy it, they don’t have to buy it — I’m sure that goes on.”
She said this exhibit is the largest single group of items she has donated to UW Special Collections, and there are likely more to come. “I’m doing it primarily because I was intrigued by the book arts collection, and I know how much it derives from the early movable books — and of course I collect children’s books and have for many years.”
She said she’d like visitors to the exhibit to come away knowing that there is more to movable and pop-up books than they’ll see in even the best book store.
Condition matters but is not everything. Harer said old pop-up books in good condition “are truly rare because they got very well used, and torn up and thrown out, basically because they no longer worked. Once they stopped working they were no longer interesting to children, or to collectors. It’s very expensive to have them repaired and only a handful of people know how to do it.”
She said book collectors generally want a book as close as possible to the way it was created. “In other words, it might be in great condition but if there’s a page missing, it doesn’t just drop the value in half, it drops it down to about 10 percent.”
Still, other collectors want the telling look of heavy use. Kroupa said, “A lot of what researchers come to me for is that patina of wear — I had one interested in coming to Seattle to look at our collection but was only interested in mother-mended books — hand-stitched. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. It holds the stuff together but its not very good for opening and closing the book.”
Harer said, “I have some that are so worm-eaten you cant even read some of the pages. But the truth is, it makes a fascinating design.”
The expensive part of production, Harer said, is all the folding and gluing together of individual pieces, which was done by hand even when such books became more readily available in the mid-19th century. “In those days they could use child labor, and they did use child labor for a lot of it.”
The collection also includes items that were products of their time but are disturbingly outdated now, such as patronizing depictions of race and gender. One colorful example is “Look Who I Am,” a 1952 book that folds out to become a doll dressed for different stereotypical female roles. “I’m a little waitress / I wear an apron neat / I come up to your table / And bring you food to eat,” one caption reads.
Which brings us back to Polly Hopkins, whose face gets moved from one paper doll to another to become different characters. These are sometimes called “changeables.”
With Victorian flourish, Polly — perhaps pretending to have fallen on hard times — poses as the street urchin “Cherry Ripe” in one and sells brooms in another. As Tommy he/she dramatically sheds “The Sailor’s Tear” on one card and preens fancily in the other, captioned “I have pluck’d the fairest flower.”
The exhibit was prepared with the help of several other people, including Kate Leonard, Judith Johnson, Moriah Nells, Chloe Horning and Wesley Nelson.
On the whole, Harer said, modern movable and pop-up books tend to be “very repetitive and not as intriguing or inspired” as older creations. Still, she added, “some of them are amazing … (t)here are some very, very clever people out there.”
Asked if there is any particular book shes still searching for, Harer added, “Or that I found and it was far too pricey to buy?”
As if ordering from a genie, she answered, “I’ll take the Orbis Sensualium Pictus,” a 1658 textbook whose title translates to “The Visible World in Pictures.” “And Ill take it in English, or Ill take it in German.”
Harer said she doesn’t mind donating such fine parts of her collection “as long as I have something else to concentrate on.”
Next up, she said, is consolidating her collection of “object books, which are books that teach through pictures that illustrate the words.”
After all, she said, “I’m not getting any younger — or have you heard that before?”