The peepshow, often a simple wooden box, with a biconvex lens, a set of prints, and the magic storytelling powers of a showman, was for a curious public a transporter through time and space, a purveyor of both edification and pleasure. Itinerant showmen hawked their wares in competition with other street entertainers in Europe’s great cities. The peepshow had to compete with dancing bears, learned pigs, jugglers, balancing acts, conjurers, pantomimes, and puppeteers. The magic occurred only when a viewer set their eye near a hole and entered the private space of the box to see the wonders of a world beyond their daily life. What wondrous sites there were to visit: distant lands, never before seen and perhaps never before even heard of, ferocious battles and stately monuments, images to impress, startle and delight.
What is known about the origins of the peepshow? In 1437 Leone Battista Alberti, devised a mechanism to look at perspective views through a small hole in a box. Little is known about these boxes, but Alberti was reputed to have two kinds of boxes, one for day scenes and the other for night scenes. In 1583 Egnacio Danti wrote about an anamorphic image drawn in a box to be viewed through a hole, suggesting an anamorphic peepshow. This same idea would later be illustrated by Mario Bettini in 1642.
The Augsburg clock maker Maggraf built two boxes, in a span of four years, which served both as clocks and as peepshows. The one he built in 1599, unlike his earlier box, no longer required the viewer to lift the lid. Instead there was a viewing hole in the front of the box. These boxes were soon followed by a series of boxes executed by a small group of Dutch painters. Two of these artists, both students of Rembrandt, Carel Fabritius(1622-1654) and Samuel van Hoogstraten(1627-1678) built early perspective boxes. The famous English painter Thomas Gainsborough would create his own show box in 1780. Gainsborough created a box for viewing transparent paintings on glass.
From these early boxes evolved the peepshow which would entertain people for several hundred years.
The development of the peepshow was not limited to the West. By 1718 there was commentary in Japan that, “One must see the devilish pleasure of the peeping machine for a sen. One can have a thousand gold pieces worth of play.” The Japanese connected many of the early machines with the west and particularly Holland, referring to the optiques as “Holland machines” and the prints ads “Red Hair Ukiyoe”.
With the popularity of these viewing machines came the large scale production of views. The greatest activity occurred between 1740-1790 and was concentrated in six cities: London, Paris, Basanno (Italy), Augsburg (Germany), Amsterdam, and Vienna.
It wasn’t long before this form of popular entertainment was made available for home use. Some famous engravers, probably none more famous than Martin Engelbrect, made beautiful engraved sets of small parlor sized peepshow views which fit nicely in a variety of wood boxes. Then miniature peepshows with their own crude views were produced.
By the 1820’s engravers started to put sheets together to create accordion-like peepshow souvenirs commemorating historical events and celebrations. These toys were joined by such other variations on the theme as: alabaster peep eggs, polyorama panoptiques, and the megalethoscope.
There were two types of peep show boxes. Horizontal boxes used a lens and distance to create a 3D affect. Vertical boxes were called boite d’Optiques and used a combination of viewing lens in front and mirror placed at a forty five degree angle. The viewer looked through the lens while the mirror redirected his or her line of sight to the view below
Peepshows were known by different names in different countries: in Holland: Rarekiek, in Germany:Guckkasten, in Italy: Mondo Nuovo, and in the US and England: Peepshow.