The Marvelous World of Meggendorfer’s Moving Books

Did you know that pop-up books have been around for hundreds of years? The earliest examples of movable books — some as early as the thirteenth century! — were used for adult education. Books on subjects ranging from human anatomy to artistic perspective used tabs, flaps, and fold-outs to illustration information that was best conveyed in three dimensions.

But these interactive elements also made useful tools for childhood learning and enrichment. By the mid-nineteenth century, when books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales set precedents for vivid, imaginative children’s literature, pop-up books could make colorful scenes come alive for young readers.

This young soldier, charging into battle astride his rocking horse, was drawn and brought to life by Lothar Meggendorfer (1847-1925). Meggendorfer was a German artist and publisher who illustrated weekly comic and satirical papers as well as numerous books, but he is best known for his illustrated movable children’s books. Meggendorfer engineered a way to move several tabs at once by layering the page, the colorful paper cutouts, and an intricate system of levers made of a lightweight but sturdy material such as cardboard or copper wire. The reader pulls a tab attached to the side of the page, and the tab’s movement activates several levers which guide various motions. For example, in this colorful pond scene, a single tab activates the dragonfly’s arc of escape as well as the fish’s hungry lunge and widening mouth.

These chickens, each adorned with unique markings and crest, bob their heads for food at different paces and levels.

Lothar Meggendorfer’s moveable books are remarkable not just for their ingenuity and craft, but for the ersatz cartoonist’s bright, colorful, often humorous style. Maurice Sendak, an admirer and collector of Meggendorfer’s works, wrote about how these creations appeal to children without condescending to them.

Maurice Sendak bequeathed his collection of Meggendorfer books to the Rosenbach, including a book that folds out into a three-ring circus which is now on view in a recently opened exhibition. The videos posted above were all filmed by the Philadelphia Inquirer for a multi-part story exploring the bequest, the importance of select works to Sendak’s literary imagination, and the significance of Meggendorfer’s marvelous movable books.

Recent Acquisitions from the Bequest of Maurice Sendak is on view through April 30.