Skip to content

Is it a toy, or is it a book?

Macy's On Parade, c2002

In truth, a bit of both and much, much more. Pop-up books (also referred to as three dimensional or movable books), have been popular since Victorian times. Since the mid nineteenth century publishers have primarily, though not exclusively, targeted children. These books are perhaps best described as a type within the interactive books genre, because even the most basic pop-up diorama can captivate the attention of the reader in a way which words alone might not. As the books have evolved, so too has reader interaction: Pop-Up books nowadays frequently include moving parts with volvelles (layered revolving wheels), lifting flaps, levers, and pull tabs. As well as being works of art, they are often intricate works of paper engineering.

Popigami - pop-up meets origami, c2007

People often liken the creation of pop-ups with the ancient Japanese craft of origami. The link between the two is clear, as both are largely exercises in folding paper. However, origami is paper folding in its purest sense, without adaptation, while creating pop-up displays requires cutting and gluing. The pop-up is also usually accompanied by a story or descriptive text: This can be minimal depending on the age group of the targeted reader.


The earliest movable books were volvelles produced by hand in the thirteenth century. These dealt with adult subjects such as calendars, astronomy, mathematics, medical procedures, secret codes and fortune telling. In 1765 a lift the flap book, 'Harlequinade', was the first of its type for children. It was created by Robert Sayer, but it wasn't until the nineteenth century that publishers appreciated the value of movable books for children - largely because of a shift in social attitudes towards children.

The "Golden Age" of the pop-up book is considered the mid to late Victorian period. Publisher Dean and Sons embarked on the first mass produced 'movable' books in their 'Dean's New Scenic Books Series' in the 1860s. The series of four books included: Aladdin, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Robinson Crusoe. These were not a huge commercial success but they did set the foundation for others to follow: The 'Showman Series', published by McLoughlin Brothers, were the first pop-ups to be published in the USA. In Europe Ernest Nister, a German artist and publisher, led the way with some beautiful transformative designs in books such as The Model Menagerie with Natural History Stories by Lucy Weedon, published in 1896 with chromolithograph illustrations. A transformative design consists of slats which slide over and beneath each other to change the scene depicted.

There was subsequently a lull in the market after the first world war. New life was breathed into it in the 1930s. Between 1929 and 1949 Louis Giraud produced sixteen 'living model' books in the well-known Bookano Stories series, published by Strand Publications. Equally important were illustrators Walt Disney and Harold B. Lentz, and publishers Blue Ribbon Books (USA, set up by Lentz) and Dean and Sons (UK). These artists and publishers led the market growth with stories of classic fairy tales and Harold Lentz was the first publisher to use the term 'pop-up'. Another key figure was Julian Wehr whose tab operated design moved aspects of the pop-up image. Such movable books are known as 'animated'. The outbreak of the second world war saw another lull in the market.

Austrian born Czech architect and artist Vojtech Kubasta was a key figure in another resurgence after the war. Many of his books were published in the 1960s, such as Puss in Boots Pop Up, published by Bancroft & Co in 1961. The best known modern proponent of the pop-up arts is Robert Sabuda, an American artist and paper engineer.

Other styles of the same genre as pop-up books are the tunnel or peep show books and the carousels. The pages of tunnel books are taped on either side (each page attached to the next) to open out in an elongated tunnel-like form. The cover and pages have designs and holes to allow the viewer to see one long three dimensional display. Carousel books have a single intricate design attached to each of the covers. The book is opened fully with the front cover secured to the rear (front to back, usually with a ribbon), thus opening out a three hundred and sixty degrees pop-up display.

Tips for the Collector:

For the collector, pop-up books are a good option. Apart from their captivation they can also be a very good investment. Pop-ups have always been expensive to produce because of the paper engineering required: They are constructed by hand. A publisher has to pay not just the writer of the words in a book, but also an artist and a paper engineer and higher production costs. Consequently, first print runs are frequently relatively small and many pop-up books never get reprinted: When they are, it is advisable to seek out the first edition. Another advantage for the collector is that at a time when publishing is becoming increasingly digital, the pop-up book remains a three dimensional art form which cannot be reproduced as an electronic book.

In The Forest - a natural history pop-up book, published 2011. For collectors it is important that modern books are in at least very good condition

As stated earlier, pop-ups are not exclusively published for children: There are many fine educational books for young adults and others dealing with adult subjects. However, like the products of the toy market, which is largely child focussed, many pop-up books tend to get damaged: Apart from the usual problems of damage to covers and scribbling inside, pop-ups and mechanicals are frequently damaged, repaired or missing. Hence there are fewer old examples which survive in the higher condition grades, which adds to the attraction for collectors. Those who collect modern pop-ups, books up to about thirty years old, should avoid copies which are in anything less than very good condition with all three-dimensional views and mechanical arrangements complete and undamaged. Older books should be complete, but damaged copies are acceptable where the repair cost to value ratio is financially viable.

Collectors need to be vigilant with their pop-up books. They should never be stacked, always stand them in a vertical position on a bookshelf. They should not be packed tightly on the shelf, as this can damage the spines and the paper engineering within, and they should be kept in a stable environment (without big fluctuations in temperature and humidity). It is also a good idea to periodically open your books, page by page, to ensure the pop-ups don't become lazy and any mechanical arrangements don't seize up.

There are sufficient pop-ups for collectors to specialise: Some collect a particular illustrator or publisher, others look for a certain paper engineer or collect books published within a date range. There is also plenty of scope to collect by theme: Christmas, or special occasions, dinosaurs, architecture, wild animals and pets, fairy tales, educational subjects, natural history, phenomena, space and just about any theme you might think of.

Certainly not for young children, Menopop is an activity book about the menopause, c2002