Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Nineteenth-Century Paper Doll Books

Modern-day paper dolls typically entail a cut-out figure (cardboard) and a set of costumes (paper) that are hooked onto this figure with tabs, but the nineteenth-century originators of the form, the publishers and printsellers S. and J. Fuller, utilised a different format. The basic elements of their paper doll books, produced from around 1805 to 1815 but available well after this period, were a small black-and-white book containing a moralistic children's story, a number of coloured cut-out images printed separately on card, showing costumes but sometimes framing these in a wider scene, and a single coloured cardboard head. Each costume had a small tab at its back into which the 'stem' of the head could be inserted to produce a standalone illustration to the storybook.

What I find most interesting about these early paper doll books is the tension between word and image. Moveable books, as has been observed by a number of critics, are characterised by the interplay between narrative and spectacle, expressly, the visual spectacle of both their illustrations and the mechanics of those illustrations. Paper doll books add another dimension to this picture book economy: they focus on clothing and costume, which are inherently spectacular topoi in and of themselves.

To explore this tension further - the titular heroine of the Fullers' History of Little Fanny (1810) is reproached by her mother for her desire to 'show off' her new clothes; her narcissism is the catalyst for the subsequent misfortunes which befall her. But the paper doll figures perform an exactly parallel move when they display Fanny's outfits for the delectation of the child reader. Lucinda of Lucinda, the Orphan (1812) visits a nunnery and idly expresses a wish to join the order. A nun's habit is then produced, and the narrator is at pains to remark, in a manner that throws the book's costume-proud features into relief, 'How much she eclipsed the sisters of the veil need not be told'. Lucinda's hazy admiration for religious belief is much less important than her pleasing appearance in the garments of a nun. More broadly, the drive to propel costumes into each tale, dictated by the formal focus on the paper doll as technical innovation, generates pictorial subtexts which undermine the purported textual morals.

Some images of the Fullers' paper doll books are reproduced here.

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