Sheets of paper layered one behind the other to create a 3D scene of buildings as if they rise up a hill. At the bottom is a body of water with fountains and a decorative balustrade running along its edge. Above this is a large neo-Romanesque house. Above this is an even larger rectangular building with grand entrances on each side, domes on the corners, and many flags. Above this is a cathedral-like building with tall windows filled with light and many domed towers. A US flag flies from its central, largest dome. The buildings are surrounded by lush plants.

Movable Mayhem: Pop-Up Books through the Ages

Written by the Newberry Library’s Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts Suzanne Karr Schmidt as a companion to the 2023 exhibition Pop-Up Books through the Ages. Many of the books in the show can be seen in motion here.


Books with interactive flaps, dials, pop-ups, and other moving parts have captivated readers of all ages for centuries, even before the beginning of printing. Today we might think of movable books as being primarily pop-ups, intended for children. Yet, pop-ups are just one example of an extensive history of movable books. 

The Newberry’s collection includes hundreds of books, maps, and printed sheets of ephemera (items intended for short-term use) with hands-on components. Dating from the late-1400s to the present, the moving parts within these publications enabled a wide range of users—from mathematicians to emperors to children—to better grasp the workings of their world. 

The art, science, and business of creating and printing movable books developed gradually over centuries, and different readers interacted with these tactile objects in multiple ways. Scholars constituted the initial audience and could construct movable elements in early books themselves. The format soon inspired general education, and informed modern artist books, eventually becoming more theatrical and complicated.

Paper in Three Dimensions: The Parts of Movable Books  

The main interactive components and structures of movable books include:  

volvelles—Rotatable (but not always round) dials used to perform calculations or create optical illusions. 

flaps—Paper extensions that can be lifted to show different views of a scene or subject, such as before-and-after; sometimes called “lift-the-flaps” or “turn-ups.”  

globe gores—Elongated paper strips that can be constructed into a three-dimensional globe of the heavens or the earth. Usually issued in single sheets, they were also collected in albums.  

The earliest known surviving manuscript flaps date from 1121 AD, and the earliest volvelle from 1250 AD, with printed movable books, constructable globes, and other formats produced in three dimensions beginning in the late fifteenth century. Dioramas and extendable tunnel books showing three-dimensional scenes appeared during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though the term “pop-up” was not trademarked until 1932.

Movable additions to books over the centuries were made from paper, vellum (animal skin), string, hidden metal coils, and even lead weights. Movable components such as dials, flaps, and pop-up parts were printed on uncut sheets of paper and later as perforated nesting sheets with die-cut (cut by machine) lines for easier assembly. Books using these techniques explored many themes, including religious devotion, science, political theater, entertainment, and artistic inspiration.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents:

  1. How long ago did you think the first movable or pop-up books were made before reading this Collection Essay?  
  2. How old were you when you first used a pop-up book? Are they for all ages? 
  3. How are movable or pop-up books different from regular books? 
  4. Paper engineering is a very adaptable artform. But are there topics that cannot or should not appear in pop-ups? 

From Scholarship to Entertainment

Who used movable books? The earliest movable books were scholarly, mostly devotional manuscripts written in and preserved by monasteries, which were often solely the domain of men. Renaissance-era mathematicians and artists like Albrecht Dürer dedicated their movable printed teaching manuals to other artists and craftsmen, and used them to impress noble patrons. Male university students might have read one of many editions of Peter Apian’s Cosmography with its dials or cheaper, abbreviated versions of Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica with its anatomy flap diagrams. Wealthy young men and, increasingly, women too, became audiences for movable books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pursuing activities ranging from making predictions with specialized astronomical texts to playing fortune-telling games. By the eighteenth century, some geographical manuals for affluent and literate consumers became explicitly coeducational. Eventually, movable and pop-up books would be marketed equally to male and female readers and intended to reach broader audiences.

The First Dials

The earliest volvelles that we know to have survived appeared as calendars and calculators in thirteenth-century manuscripts, followed by a fifteenth-century print publication boom. German mathematician Johannes Regiomontanus’s Kalender (with the earliest volvelle in a printed book), and Italian scholar Jacobus Publicius’s snake-shaped, movable memorization aid were especially frequently published texts.

Image of a page of a book with a large circle printed on it with the signs of the zodiac and other notations. Stacked on top of this circle are two smaller movable dials, both of which also have notations and units of measurement around their edges. The center of the topmost dial is decorated with a sun.
Joannes Regiomontanus, Calendarium (Calendar), Library of Congress (1474)
Movable Books Fit for Emperors and Students

Books with moving parts often pushed print technology to its limits. Perhaps the most lavish movable book, the Astronomicum Caesareum, or Imperial Astronomy, is a brightly hand-colored volume from 1540 that includes twenty-two rotating, full-page astronomical volvelles calculating horoscopes and other measurements. The mathematician, astronomer, and cartographer Peter Apian dedicated it to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who thanked Apian by knighting him. This copy, owned by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and given to his student, is now at the University of Chicago. It still includes silken index strings and sliding seed pearls to mark the reader’s place. It was also briefly at the Newberry, when the library acquired Louis Silver’s collection in 1964. Yet it was never accessioned, and was sold to help defray the costs of the Silver sale. But Apian also made a more affordable version.  

Two-page spread of two lavishly decorated stacks of rotating dials. The outermost circle of the dials on the right-hand page has the months of the year. Within it are multiple concentric smaller dials, and the edges of each are divided into many categories. The center of the innermost dial is decorated with a circle of dragon heads and tails. On the left-hand pages is another stack of concentric dials each with a series of divisions and charts on its edges.
Peter Apian, Astronomicum Cæsareum (Imperial Astronomy), University of Chicago (1540)

Indeed, thanks to early twentieth century collector Edward E. Ayer, the Newberry contains an unmatched twenty-one copies of Peter Apian’s influential interactive text on cosmography, a popular area of study including navigation, surveying, and timekeeping. The Cosmography includes five interactive instruments: a boat-shaped dial that teaches about latitude and the horizon; a sundial with an index string; a sundial with three movable components and leaded weight on strings that must be consulted upside down; a view of the earth from the North Pole with dials that measure times and locations; and a two-layer lunar volvelle that calculates time by day or night. These stayed the same from the first edition in 1524 to the last in 1609, and appeared in many languages (Dutch, French, Latin, Spanish) and cities (Antwerp, Amsterdam, Landshut, Paris).  

Spread of five printed books, each open to a page with a rotatable dial or stack of dials. These dials are very detailed and clearly for scientific calculations.
Peter Apian, Cosmographica, various editions (1524-1609)

Questions to Consider: 

  1. How have the audiences for pop-up books changed over time? 
  2. Can early movable books be considered works of art? 

Maps, Globes, and Flaps 

Paper was already three-dimensional during the Renaissance. Globes were constructed from drawn or printed globe gores as early as 1492. These cut-out, elongated strips illustrating sections of the globe were pasted onto a wooden or papier-mâché core. Usually sold in pairs, the spheres depicted both the terrestrial and the celestial realms. Early cartographic paper engineering also included flap depictions of battle movements and before-and-after views of natural disasters, as well as a few volvelles.

Drawing of the globe focusing on central Asia and the Indian Ocean. Around the globe are depictions of the ten winds as winged heads blowing air toward the globe. In the upper and lower left-hand corners are crests. In the upper and lower right-hand corners are paragraphs of text within decorative borders.
Albrecht Dürer, artist, and Johannes Stabius, cartographer, [World Map] (1515; this copy printed 1781)

Famous German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer collaborated on several woodcut mapping projects with astronomers for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Unfortunately, no copies of his 1515 World Map that were printed in the sixteenth century survive. Dürer also wrote and illustrated a Manual of Measurement for artists around 1525. Several diagrams in it showed globes in sections, but these were never intended to be cut-out globe gores. Instead, his massive bird’s-eye view map demonstrates the sphere’s volume through perspective. His Manual also included two extendable flaps for diagrams demonstrating the proper use of perspective.

Two-page spread of a book with drawings and text illustrating how to measure lengths with trigonometry. A fold-out flap is attached to the lower right-hand page. When open, the flap extends the diagram on the page to show a man looking at a given point on the main daigram.
Albrecht Dürer, Underweysung der Messung (Manual of measurement), Plates 59-61 (1525)
Destruction by Rockslide

What can we learn from a flap that is no longer there? In 1618, Plurs, a prosperous mining town nestled between Italy and Switzerland, fell victim to a sudden and devastating rockslide. This rare broadside once included a glued-on flap of the lake that formed over the destroyed town; bits of red wax and paper at the top show where it was attached. Printed news reports about the disaster ‘went viral,’ and several included this type of flap.

Two copies of the same printed broadside placed next to each other. The left-hand one shows the town of Plurs nestled among trees. The left-hand one has a flap that covers the town, showing the landslide that destroyed it and the lake that formed afterwards.
Johann Philipp Walch, “Warhafftige Abbildung desz Flecken Plurs . . . (Truthful illustration [of the shocking destruction] of Plurs . . . )” (1619). Left, Newberry Library copy without flap. Right, copy from Kunstsammlungen Waldburg-Wolfegg with flap.
Repositioning the Armies

Several British maps of American Revolutionary War battles included flaps with changing views of troop formations as the armies attacked each other. British officers who served as engineers and cartographers made several interactive maps. The author of this one, Lieutenant Page, was wounded during the British attack in their 1775 victory at Bunker Hill near Boston.

Two images of the same map of Charlestown in Boston, showing Bunker and Breeds Hills. A flap covers Bunker Hill on the left-hand map, showing British and Continental troop positions at the beginning of the battle. The flap is open on the right-hand map, showing how British troops advanced to take the hills.
Sir Thomas Hyde Page, “A Plan of the Action at Bunkers Hill on the 17th of June 1775” (1775)

Interactive maps and globes continued to be used in the classroom and in homeschooling into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This included many of the subjects we now know as the sciences, such as anatomy, astronomy, geometry, geography, and mathematics. A very popular series by Richard Turner was geared to learners of all genders, with the title A View of the Earth: Being a short, but comprehensive system of Modern Geography. First published in 1762 and still in print in an expanded format by 1810, it was “Addressed to the young Gentlemen and Ladies of Great Britain and Ireland. It included a so-called geographical clock with a rotating dial. Indeed, it must have succeeded, as Turner also published a book of astronomy entitled A View of the Heavens with a matching volvelle of celestial imagery!

Selection: Richard Turner, A View of the Earth: Being a Short, but Comprehensive System of Modern Geography, title page and frontispiece and volvelle of geographical clock (1766)
  • Two-page spread of a printed book. The title page is on the right printed in red and black. On the left is a hand-colored map of the world in two spheres laid out horizontally on the page with the South Pole facing the binding. The Americas are in the lower globe and Eurasia is in the upper globe.
  • Single page of a book entitled "The explanation and use of the geographical clock," a clock which shows the user what time it is in major world cities. The rotating dial is set in a diamond, with corners labeled "Midnight" (bottom), "Morning" (left), "Noon" (top), and "Evening" (right). The twenty-four hours of the day are laid out in a circle within this diamond, corresponding to the times of day. Within this circle is a rotating disk with the names of various locations radiating out from the center. When the user turns the disk so that their location points to the correct time of day, the other locations will also point to the correct times of day there.

Questions to Consider: 

  1. Early print rarely survives to the present, especially books with moving parts. What records of news that affect your lives today might be lost in the future?  
  2. What school topics would pop-ups make more interesting today?  

Putting It Together: From Do-It-Yourself to Preassembled Books 

Novelty was a major motivation for marketing movable books. Yet early modern publishers were initially hesitant to offer fragile dials or flap additions, leaving their construction in the hands of the buyers and bookbinders who assembled the sheets into codices (bound volumes). Because of this, many copies remain unconstructed. The most complicated movable books and presentation copies, however, usually would have come preassembled. By the nineteenth century and with the advent of publishers’ bindings, movable book formats became more available, while also trending toward more robust offerings for children. This provided the opportunity for ephemeral (single-use), pamphlet-like printed souvenirs of dramatic theater performances, recreations of architecture and scenery, and even valentines proffering fold-out bouquets. More recently, innovations in paper engineering have emboldened bookmaking artists to adapt older techniques in new, structurally ambitious ways.  

Skin Deep?

Anatomical flap prints and interactive book illustrations became popular teaching tools in the sixteenth century. Andreas Vesalius taught medical students about dissection with them. His book came with a fold-out broadside of the human body with a separate sheet of organs for the owner to cut out and place on it. A cheaper student version was also available. This hands-on technique continued to develop, with a full-color printed pinnacle in Gustav Joseph Witkowski’s oversized eye model. While Vesalius included notes on the best way to reinforce each organ, the variety of materials comprising Witkowski’s eyeball—and the lack of instructions—made it likely too complicated to have been built by the buyer. And so, it would have been sold preassembled.

Two pages from a printed book. The left-hand page displays most of a human figure with major blood vessels and some internal organs. The page on the right has other important organs with descriptions, designed to be cut out and placed by the user on the human figure on the first page. Both pages include notes in Latin describing the organs and their functions.
Andreas Vesalius, De Humani corporis fabrica libri septem (On the fabric of the human body in seven books) (1543)
Binding Bloopers and Awkward Additions

Early modern movable books were sold as unbound sheets, and amateur construction attempts often failed. One of the Newberry’s Peter Apian Cosmography books has the wrong parts bound into its second diagram. And an inattentive bookbinder bound Robert Dudley’s ambitious seventeenth-century atlas too tightly for his volvelles to function; they now fold in on themselves too closely to turn.

Fold-out page of a book featuring a complex series of stacked rotating disks (volvelles) with mathematical information. Because the book has been bound too tightly, though, the volvelles are folded in on themselves where they meet the binding and can't turn.
Robert Dudley, Dell’ Arcano del Mare (Mysteries of the Sea), vol. 1 (1646-1647)

Another collector, who might or might not be the nineteenth-century collector Henry Probasco who sold the book to the Newberry, secreted two prints of naked women into this modern version of the famous fifteenth-century poem Roman de la Rose about chivalric love.

Selection: Guillaume de Lorris, author; Jean de Meun, author; Octave Delpierre, compiler, Cy est le Rommant de la Rose, ou Tout l’Art d’Amour est Enclose (Here is the “Roman de la Rose,” in which all the art of love is enclosed), first image and second image (1848)
  • Image of a full-page illustration in a book. The illustration has a square green border with flowers and a coat of arms. The original illustration within this border has been partly cut out to create a flap, which is held open to reveal a copy of Titan's Venus d'Urbano (a painting of a naked white woman laying on a couch in a seductive pose).
  • Image of a full-page illustration of a bouquet of flowers. Some of the flowers in the bouquet have been cut out to create a flap, which is held open to reveal a painting of a naked white woman underneath.
Taking an Armchair Pilgrimage

Miracles can happen between the pages of pop-up books. The pages of two movable books published over three hundred years apart reveal Saint Francis’s thirteenth-century vocation and the 1531 discovery of the Virgin of Guadalupe in similar ways. In a 1612 pilgrimage guide to the Italian holy mountain where Saint Francis received a vision of wounds like Christ’s, the liftable flaps granted hands-on access to Francis’s devotional journey.

Two images of the same illustration side-by-side. The illustration is a black-and-white engraving of two white people walking through a gully of tall rocks with trees growing on their tops. In the left-hand image, rocks appear to block their path. In the right-hand image, someone holds open a flap that reveals a third white person pointing to a sheltered overhang in which there is a large cross.
Fra Lino Moroni, author, after Jacopo Ligozzi, artist, Descrizione del sacro monte della Vernia (Description of the sacred mountain of La Verna) (1612)

In a 1998 pop-up you encounter the vision of the Virgin with peasant Juan Diego in his village near Mexico City in three dimensions. Both books were assembled before purchase, and the construction was done by hand.

Book open to its first page, which folds out to create a pop-up image. In the image, a Latino man kneels in a landscape of rocks, cactuses, and other plants. In front of him the bust of the Virgin Mary appears surrounded by a halo of light and clouds. The man, some of the plants, and the Virgin Mary all pop out from the page.
Felipe Dávalos, artist; Maria Eugenia Guzmán, paper engineer, La Virgen de Guadalupe (The Virgin of Guadalupe) (1998)

Questions to Consider:   

  1. How can moving parts help immerse the reader in an historical event, or help them relive it? What other disasters would work this way? Pompeii? The Titanic? 
  2. Personalizing collections can be about more than gathering all of one kind of thing, making a list, or signing your name on each object. Sometimes adding unusual touches makes them unique. How would you make a collection (of books–pop-up or not—or other things) your own? What about other items your own? 

Moving into Three Dimensions and Modernity 

A charming, colorful scene of a group of kittens misbehaving (instead of learning their lessons) is probably what most people think of as pop-up books. Meme-worthy today, it was already being mass-produced in the nineteenth century by German publisher Ernst Nister, who had a keen business sense for movable books, and quickly expanded into English and other markets.

Book open to a page with a pop-out. The full-page illustration shows for kittens dressed in period clothes playing in a room. From left to right, a tabby kitten in a blue dress plays the piano; a tabby kitten in a green shirt and pants holds a small chalkboard; a white kitten in a pink dress reads a book; and a tabby kitten in beige pants and shirt sits at the top of a small ladder blowing a horn and wearing a folded paper hat. Other toys are scattered on the floor. In the background an adult gray cat in a maid's uniform looks through the room's partly-open door in dismay.
Ernst Nister, Always Happy Day-In, Day-Out: a Panorama Picture Book (Immer froh tagaus, tagein: ein Panorama-Bilderbuch) (1890s)

Long after the naughty Nister kittens, Blue Ribbon Books was the first to trademark the term “pop-up” and published a series of movable books in the 1930s, starting with their 1932 “Pop-Up Pinocchio. Harold Lentz designed four sections with thicker paper to support the structures. Pinocchio reads in his playroom, encounters the Blue Fairy, plays hooky at a circus, and emerges with Geppetto from the belly of a whale-like “dogfish.” The series was extremely popular, and their covers repeated the newly trademarked terminology of “pop-up” or “pop-up illustrations” with gusto.

Book open to show a full-page illustration with a pop-up in the center. The illustration shows a large fish with its mouth open. Pinocchio (a wooden boy) and Geppetto (and old white man with a long beard) stand in the center of the fish's mouth, either being eating or escaping. The ocean is all around them, and a white man in a fishing boat looks on. Pinocchio, Geppetto, and the fish's mouth pop out from the page.
Harold B. Lentz, The “Pop-Up” Pinocchio (1932)

Optical Illusions.
Sheets of paper layered one behind the other to create a 3D scene of buildings as if they rise up a hill. At the bottom is a body of water with fountains and a decorative balustrade running along its edge. Above this is a large neo-Romanesque house. Above this is an even larger rectangular building with grand entrances on each side, domes on the corners, and many flags. Above this is a cathedral-like building with tall windows filled with light and many domed towers. A US flag flies from its central, largest dome. The buildings are surrounded by lush plants.
Electrical Building, in World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago (after 1933)

While creating depth, movable books can also fool the eye. One eighteenth-century magician’s trick “blow book” or “flick book” looks blank until the performer breathes life into it. The different sections are operated by tabs; this one includes colorful stock engravings of flowers, nuns, and soldiers. Later moving flap books created optical illusions through cut-out layers. Benjamin Sands’s popular Metamorphosis conjoins Adam and Eve with a mermaid’s tail, a lion with a griffin, and other surprises. Pop-up pioneer Lothar Meggendorfer’s zany aunt exhibits ever-changing uncouth behaviors from smoking to seduction as the viewer flips through the slices of the page. (In the 1890s, women who smoked were considered truly modern and risqué!)

Lothar Meggendofer, Die Frau, Bas!: humoristisches Album mit über 4000 verwandlungen (Mrs. Bas!: humorous album with over 4000 transformations) (1899), Jacques, Francois Chereau, Ambigu magique, ou, Tableaux changeans … (Ambiguous magic or changing pictures …) (1777), and Benjamin Sands, Metamorphosis (1853).

Several three-dimensional book genres emerged in the nineteenth century, including panoramas and tunnel books. These architectural structures frame theatrical and intimate glimpses into hidden or forbidden realms, some of which relate to Chicago. Carousel books open from a closed binding, creating an experience in the round. Hannah Batsel’s carousel channels science fiction, missed love connections, and big city isolation. The stepped-back view of the 1893 Columbian Exposition creates a similar vantage point to Don Widmer’s tunnel-book murder mystery set in Chicago’s Glessner House mansion.
Hannah Batsel, Weider than Fiction (2021) and Don Widmer, Fanny and the Doll Corpse (2016)

Finally, How Do You Make a Modern Pop-Up? Answer: Still by Hand!  

Paper dolls are a relatively simple example of how much easier movable book production became once the parts were pre-cut. For instance, by the 1950s, M. A. Donohue published children’s books and ephemera from offices in Chicago and New York. The firm’s nesting-sheets’ dolls featuring the latest children’s fashions were sold in partially perforated sheets. Customers simply had to punch them out for play. A more advanced, computerized method, laser cutting, was used for the DIY pop-up Newberry kit collaboratively designed by paper engineer Shawn Sheehy and illustrator Hannah Batsel.

Printed color sheet of two young white boys on a red background. Both boys wear white ankle socks, black shoes, and undershirts tucked into shorts. The boy on the left wears blue shorts with a pirate face on the lower right leg, a blue, green, and white striped undershirt, and a white belt. The boy on the left wears a green undershirt with a pirate in the middle, green shorts with a pirate ship on the lower left leg, and a white belt. Around each boy is the white text "Ted and Bob" (left), "Cut-Out Dolls" (right).
M.A. Donohue, publisher, Cut-Out Dolls: Ted and Bob (1950s)

Questions to Consider: 

  1. Recent pop-up books tend to be either mass produced with many thousands of copies, or artist books in a few hundred. What are the benefits of both? 
  2. If paper dolls are produced using the same technologies as pop-up books, are pop-up books a type of game? What other books might be considered games? And how does approaching books as ‘games’ change your idea of a book’s possible purpose? 

About the Author

Suzanne Karr Schmidt (PhD Yale) has been the George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Chicago’s Newberry Library since 2017, following eight years as a fellow and curator in Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. A historian of early modern art, books, prints, and science, her monograph, Interactive and Sculptural Printmaking in the Renaissance, appeared in 2018. She publishes widely on hybridity and materiality in print, particularly on the “Renaissance Pop-Up Book.” Expanding her movable books range up to the present, she has most recently curated the playful Newberry exhibition, Pop-Up Books Through the Ages (March 21-July 15, 2023), which examines this overlooked artform from the medieval to the modern era. Her previous prizewinning shows include her co-curated 2020 Newberry exhibition Renaissance Invention: Stradanus’s Nova Reperta (read the related Collection Essay here), and her 2011 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life