There was a kind of street show which was very popular between XVIII and XIX centuries: the peepshow. Peepshows carried different names in different countries: in Italy, Mondo Nuovo, in Germany, Guckkasten, in France, boîte d'optique.

What is a Peepshow?

Hand coloured prints are shown into a large box with one or more viewing holes. The images showned are sights of exotique lands or famous places. The box has an opening on the top that allows some light directly onto the image. A second opening in the rear allows for back lighting a print creating the effect of night view. Also, there was the possibility of using candles behind the print to create the same effect.

Infact many prints bore pinpricked perforations. When viewed from the front with direct light these images appeared as 'normal', but they were transformed when were back-lit: a spectacular effect was created because suddenly lights in windows seemed to shine and the daylight scene is tranformed in a night scene. The strings on the side of the box were attached to the prints themselves and allowed the showman to manipulate them.

While the spectator watches the sights inside the box, the showman displays his skill as storyteller. He tries to involve the spectator in a momentary break out of the boring routine of normal daily living. In the past most people's horizons were limited to the nearby vicinity. The peepshow gave to them a short glimpse of distant and wonderful places.

Three hand-colored engravings with a night view effect made to be showed in a peep show. These engravings were produced in Augsburg by G.B. Probst in the XVIII century and are part of a set about the seven wonders of the ancient world (cm. 40 x 27).

L'Anfiteatro di Roma, il sesto miracolo del Mondo (or: Der grose runde Schauplaz zu Rom, Sechste Wunderwerk der Welt).

Monumento di Mausoli, il quarto miracolo del Mondo (or Des Mausoli Grabmaal, Vierte Wunderwerck der Welt).

I Pyramidi d'Egitto, il terzo miracolo del Mondo (or Die Egyptischen Pyramiden, dritte Wunderwerck der Welt).



Polyorama Panoptique

The Polyorama Panoptique was a French optical toy invented by Pierre Seguin in 1820 and very popular for a long time. It was a late variation of the peepshow.

The Polyorama Panoptique consisted of an hand viewer designed to display printed cards with a charming day and night effect, depending on the direction of the light.
























Additional Trasparencies

In the 1830s William Spooner produced a special kind of engravings called 'Protean Views'. In these prints the picture was transformed by backligthing.

This is 'Destruction of a Swiss Village by an Avalanche'. The image size is 13 x 18 cm



William Morgan was a Spooner's competitor and in the 1830s produced the Morgan' s Dioramic Views. Here is an example: The interior of Westminster Abbey. When it is backlit the gallery is occupied by the coronation of Queen Victoria. (cm. 23,5 x 17,5)


The Litophane is a translucent porcelain (usually made in Germany) that, when back lit, displays a detailed picture. Lithophanes were very popular in the XIX century and were usually utized as lamp shades.












A postcard from Zürich that displays a pretty nocturnal vision when it is backlit (1906).



A French postcard (1903). When it is backlit the winter scenery turns into a spring landscape.