English toy theatre sheets were first published by William West in London in 1811. In 1821, the publisher Hodgson & Co. took the genre to a more sophisticated level by publishing scripts adapted from the London stage accompanied by series of engraved sheets of set designs (backdrops), actors, and various accessories. According to Guildhall Library, “[t]hese could run to as many as 32 plates of characters and up to 29 scenes, which were then supplemented by vast processions, grand cars and battle scenes.” The stage views with pairs of stage wings, and the characters and other figures were designed to be cut out and pasted on cardboard for use in home productions of the play in a small wooden theater. Some of these were issued hand colored while those issued as black and white engravings could be colored by the user.
Theatre historians today view these prints as valuable records of the range of popular theatrical productions of early-19th-century Regency period London. This was further explained for the Guildhall exhibition:
The English toy theatre — or juvenile drama — far from being merely a child’s plaything, offers a unique record of the actors, scenery, costumes and spectacle experienced by the London play-going public of the early 19th century. As a barometer of popular taste of the period it is unsurpassed, and well deserves its 1820s epithet of “The British Stage in Miniature”.
This was also emphasized by David Robinson, a British film critic, historian, and expert on toy theatre: “The people who issued the toy theatre prints were not just printers: they were impresarios — and impresarios who presented not just the legitimate repertoire of the patent houses but the whole range of London’s popular theatre.”
Hodgson & Co. was a British theatrical publishing firm based in London, active from 1821 to 1840. The repertoire included adaptations of historical dramas, exotic epics, Shakespeare, and plays about life in London.
Full publication information: Hodgson & Co., 43 King St. Snow Hill & 43 Holywell St. Strand.
“File: Toy Theatre.” Wikimedia Commons. 18 August 2011. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toy_Theatre.jpg (6 July 2020).
“Five of Hodgson’s scene plates for the play ‘The Temple of Death.'” British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1886-0513-1507-1514 (3 July 2020).
“Hodgson’s juvenile drama.” National Library of Australia. https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/34441198?q&versionId=42591297 (3 July 2020).
“Hodgson’s Juvenile Drama: The British Stage in Miniature 1821-1840.” Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section Electronic Newsletter. No. 9, Autumn 2007. Online at: https://archives.history.ac.uk/guildhallmanuscripts/newsletter9.htm (3 July 2020).
Loxton, Howard. “Archive Exhibition, Hodgson’s Juvenile Drama: The British Stage in Miniature 1821-1840, Guildhall Library, 2007.” Rogues & Vagabonds. 14 November 2007. https://roguesandvagabonds.wordpress.com/2016/03/25/archive-exhibition-%E2%80%A2-hodgsons-juvenile-drama-the-british-stage-in-miniature-1821-1840-%E2%80%A2-guildhall-library-%E2%80%A2-2007/ (3 July 2020).
“No. 39 of Hodgson’s Theatrical Portraits for the toy theatre.” British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1886-0513-1544 (3 July 2020).