Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
I was thrilled when I found out about the Newberry Library’s new exhibit, Pop-Up Books through the Ages, because it is such an incredible collection of pieces that touch on both the history of books and popular culture. I reached out to Suzanne Karr Schmidt, the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Newberry, to geek out, get a peek behind the scenes of their new exhibit, and chat about the Newberry’s incredible collection of books with moving parts.
Danielle Sanchez: When I heard about the Newberry Library’s new exhibit, Pop-Up Books through the Ages, I was fascinated because it brought back memories of book fairs in my elementary school library in the early 1990s. Yet, the types of pop-up books that I would have seen at those book fairs only represent a tiny part of the history of books with moving parts. When did books with moving parts start to emerge?
Suzanne Karr Schmidt: The earliest surviving movable books are from around 1121 AD (a gate-fold flap structure showing the cosmos) and 1250 AD (a volvelle dial with a list of Catholic calendar dates), both books created in monasteries by monks. I write about these early works of “vellum engineering” (as opposed to “paper engineering”) in this recent open-source Journal of Interactive Books article.
DS: Late twentieth century pop-up books seem to mainly be used for entertainment purposes, but early books with moving parts were closely linked with science. What about books with moving parts made them so attractive as tools to convey scientific knowledge?
SKS: The allure of movable books for emerging scientific studies came in part from a need to visualize and organize information. For the first, fifteenth-century calendars with dials, it was initially about simplifying the devotional calendar year, which already had some connections to astronomy. Other books were linked to fortune telling either by randomization or in an early form of computation by combining ranges of letters. The intimate hands-on nature of flaps and dials was also an attractive novelty, as most books did not have calculating devices built in for readers to use. Paper tools in books that approximated sundials and other time telling devices also became linked with them once Johannes Regiomontanus published his 1474 Calendar in German and in Latin with a dial and three instruments inside. A bestseller for its day, he may have produced as many as a thousand total copies, and his text was quickly reprinted by other publishers with the same dials and scientific instruments.
DS: Christianity eventually becomes a major theme in books with moving parts. When does that transition happen? How did people use books with moving parts to engage with Christianity and conversations surrounding the Church as an institution?
SKS: Many early examples of movable books are steeped in religious ritual, encouraging their users to devout meditation, but others give viewers the opportunity to subvert those norms. Flap-print propaganda would become a potent tool for the Protestants during the Reformation, when clergy or even the Pope were compared to misbehaving animals and threatening devils.
The Newberry has two editions of a pious seventeenth-century guide to a Holy Mountain where the thirteenth-century Saint Francis of Assisi meditated and had visions. (Just one of them will be in the show.) The flaps in the book let the reader imitate his devotional life without actually traveling there. In contrast, in a recent acquisition, a high-profile trial in 1730-31 pitted a young French woman in training to be a nun against her predatory Jesuit confessor. Thought to be one of the last witchcraft trials in Europe, the book sides with her testimony. An engraving features an interactive image of the Jesuit celebrating a dark mass at an altar with a skull; under a liftable flap on his cassock appears an image of his attempt to seduce her.
DS: These books are obviously gorgeous and intricate. What did the process of crafting these books entail and how did this process change over time?
SKS: While there were moving parts in hand-written manuscripts, most of the movable books that have survived were printed with letterpress text and woodcut images, though finer illustrations made via engraving or etchings would be used later. Only in the nineteenth century would full color become a viable option; only a very few movable books were colored by hand. Some were even illuminated!
The movable parts in these books were sometimes assembled before sale, if the book was a complicated one, or there might be a sheet of parts and instructions included at the end of the text. It is very rare to find these today, many books don’t include them or the parts that they contained. Books were sold unbound for centuries (buyers would have them bound after purchase), and it was easy for a sheet of parts to get lost. Later on, more books were preconstructed, and by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was almost always the norm for movable books to be both bound and with their interactive parts constructed, especially after diecutting and then laser cutting technologies made it easier to mass produce. But even then, the final assembly was still done by hand by the consumer.
DS: I’m guessing that these books were pretty expensive when they were produced. Who was reading these books? How did class, gender, and literacy affect how people engaged with books with moving parts?
SKS: The market for books ranged from university students and the merchant class to clergy and the nobility, with sizes and styles to match. Like any book, the most popular ones went into the most editions at different price points; several movable books, like the 1474 Regiomontanus Kalender and the 1524 Peter Apian Cosmography were best sellers, going into illicit editions all over Europe! The clergy was a particularly learned and often wealthy group, so some of the earliest movable books, (like English monk Matthew Paris’s 1250 Chronica Majora with the earliest surviving volvelle), have come down to us through ecclesiastical libraries. On the other hand, plenty of publishers also offered single-sheet broadsides with interactive anatomical, humorous, or political content. People who didn’t spend money on books or prints could have seen them at a tavern or fair, especially in larger cities like Nuremberg or Frankfurt, even if they didn’t read the text. Interactive images on single-sheet prints often conveyed a clear message without reading any of the text, particularly the political ones that contrasted good and bad behavior.
Books were significantly more expensive than a single sheet, though. A wealthy scholar with a large library was more likely to own this sort of thing than a peasant, and also more likely to preserve it for posterity. The most ostentatious movable publishing projects, like Peter Apian’s multi-volvelle, hand-colored book of the Imperial Astronomy, were intended to gain favor with important people. In Apian’s case it worked, as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V knighted him and gave him other privileges for his masterpiece.
Women were less likely to have read the early scientific books, though nuns might have had access to some, as well as to the devotional examples. Even in a convent, they were more likely to have encountered movable books that doubled as games, many of which had spinning wheels to tell fortunes that made for excellent group entertainment, especially when only one copy of the book was available. The frontispieces of some sixteenth-century Italian examples of this sort of book even show women (and men) reading the book together.
DS: I don’t typically think of reading as a social activity, but my favorite book out of this entire collection could definitely fit into that category. Can you tell us about George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes and how people used the book?
SKS: This 1635 book by English poet Wither is a profusely illustrated text that doubles as a parlor game that could be played by men or women. Nearly every page includes an enigmatic engraving with a title and related text offering a moral judgment in the style of a then-popular emblem puzzle. While you could read the whole book sequentially, a pair of moving woodcut wheels (by a different artist) tacked on at the back with instructions allowed the players to ask a question that the book itself would answer. The top wheel identified the emblem number, and the bottom one chose which section of four to consult. It even allowed for gendered responses by suggesting that if a result didn’t quite fit, the man or woman could skip to the next one that did! Hen-pecked husbands and scary memento mori images abounded, among other dire assessments of your future.
DS: How did books with moving parts change in the twentieth century? How did we go from books with moving parts whose audiences were largely adults to mass-produced and relatively inexpensive and widely available books for children?
SKS: The availability of movable books mirrored the availability of books in general. As audiences increased with mass production, there was more opportunity to cater to niche interests. Movable books and ephemera were already being marketed to children by the eighteenth century through theatrical lift-the-flap games and didactic items for the classroom. They remained popular through the nineteenth century. It became an increasingly big business once again after a boom in the 1970s and 1980s (including pop-up Star Wars books!), which now offers its own sense of nostalgia for parents.
DS: Where do you see books with moving parts going in the future?
SKS: There are already books with moving parts that experiment with sounds and even smell components, but these elements tend to be even more ephemeral than even flaps and dials. And anything with a battery component won’t last long at all!
Heavily-engineered popup books now aim at increasing the three-dimensionality and scale of the illustration that emerges from the book. But the larger the pop-up gets, the thicker the section of the book that contains it must be. There is still a finite number of sections that can be included per volume, and each one can only contain one tableau. But despite their increasing scale, since they are still paper and glue objects intended to be handled, there is no reason to expect them to last forever.
More artist books include pop-up elements, such as the 2022 From Arachnophobia to Arachnophilia book commissioned for the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s Library Council. It was designed by the artist Tomás Saraceno with the engineering help of Chisato Tamabayashi and others. Indeed, a related positive development is the increasing visibility of the paper engineer as an artistic collaborator. While authors and illustrators have been credited on most books, the paper engineer who lends form to the whole has not always been recognized, a problem dating from prolific German illustrator Lothar Meggendorfer’s experience in the nineteenth century if not earlier. In our Newberry pop-up kit, the names of both the paper engineer, Shawn Sheehy, and illustrator, Hannah Batsel, appear prominently!
DS: What is your favorite piece in the Newberry’s new exhibition on books with moving parts?
SKS: It’s difficult to decide on my favorite piece in the Newberry collection; we have so many great movable books that it was impossible to include everything in the show. We could have put on several very different installations without overlap, in fact. Still, I’m very proud of our extensive collection of cosmography textbooks by Peter Apian, of which we have a whopping over twenty copies dating from 1524 to 1609, each including at least five movable components! However, my favorite piece in the exhibition is probably the DIY pop-up Newberry kit that we commissioned from book artists Shawn Sheehy and Hannah Batsel. Anyone who comes to the exhibition will get one for free. We’d love to see photos and videos of how people personalize them while putting them together!
DS: What was the process like for tracking down these early pop-up books? Did you have trouble locating texts that still had all of their original moving parts?
SKS: Most books are multiples, so there is always a chance of finding another, perfectly preserved copy! Or a copy with all the movable parts printed on a single uncut sheet so you know what should have been put in the book. And possibly even some instructions to the reader or bookbinder. But yes, sometimes the only surviving copy doesn’t have its movable parts anymore and you have to hypothesize about which ones were there, and how the diagram might have worked when it was intact. I find copies with just enough damage that you know something was there to be quite useful, otherwise you have to wonder if you’re seeing things!
DS: What else should we know about the Newberry’s new exhibit and pop-up books?
SKS: You can find out more about our exhibition here. Pop-up books aren’t just for kids! And they certainly have been with us for a long, long time. Finally, as collector Ellen G. K. Rubin, aka the “Pop-Up Lady,” frequently says, even modern pop-up books are hand assembled! Most of the construction work for mass-produced editions is done in China these days, but there is only so much that can be automated. Even with digital printing and computerized laser-cutting, the pop-ups still need a pair of human hands to be completed.
Suzanne Karr Schmidt is the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Chicago’s Newberry Library. An historian of art, books, prints, and science before 1800, her monograph, Interactive and Sculptural Printmaking in the Renaissance, appeared in 2018. She often writes about functional forms of print, particularly the “Renaissance Pop-Up Book.” Previous exhibitions include her co-curated 2020 Newberry exhibition Renaissance Invention: Stradanus’s Nova Reperta, and her 2011 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life. She can be found talking about unusual books and other obsessions on Twitter and Mastodon as @drkarrschmidt and on Instagram as @ladydisdaine.
Danielle Sanchez (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in wartime central Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Novels. Her nerdy obsessions: knitting, Star Wars, contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez.