Colloquium | Meredith Bak

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 12:00pm


Meredith Bak

The Humpty Dumpty Circus: Toward an Expanded Conception of Toy Cinema and Cinema Toys

James Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith’s Humpty Dumpty Circus is commonly credited as the first American stop-motion animation film, produced around 1898, shortly after Blackton and Smith founded Vitagraph Studios. The film itself is lost (if it was ever made at all), but central to its origin myth is Smith’s story that inspiration for its production came from his young daughter’s toy circus set, which included figures with movable joints suitable for stop-motion photography.

Examination of the circus toys in question—Albert Schoenhut’s Humpty Dumpty Circus—definitively disproves the production date that Smith offered, but reveals an under-examined connection between American toy culture and early cinema. A playset with posable figures, Schoenhut’s Philadelphia-made Humpty Dumpty Circus line was a bestselling toy for over two decades into the 1920s and would come to include a wide range of human and animal figures with accessories.

Schoenhut’s playthings, along with related industrial documents and marketing materials, drew upon the formal and aesthetic properties of pre-cinematic image culture from optical toys like the phenakistoscope to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. As an assemblage of articulated joints, each figure contained an inventory of possible poses, embodying an expression of potential attitudes easily apprehendable by cinematic technology. I argue that principles of incremental movement associated with persistence of vision and early animation techniques informed the toys’ design and marketing. This investigation unearths a link between children’s action figures and screen culture in the early twentieth century and facilitates re-readings of later relationships between cinema, toys, and inspirations for children’s play.


Meredith A. Bak is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research focuses on children’s toys, film, media, visual, and material cultures from the nineteenth century to the present. Her work has been published in Early Popular Visual Culture, Film History, The Moving Image, The Velvet Light Trap, and Comunicazioni Sociali and is forthcoming in a number of edited collections. Her current book project considers the role of pre-cinematic visual media from optical toys to early pop-up books in shaping children as media spectators. A second project in development considers the history and theory of animate toys from talking dolls to augmented reality apps.

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