The World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago
Courtesy of Cal Otto.

Tableau Formats: Theater for Imaginative Play I

Evolving out of novelty cards, valentines, and other nineteenth-century paper art, tableaux consist primarily of a single scene. Unfolding like small theater sets, the flat sheets create a three-dimensional world layered like stage scenery. These tableaux borrow heavily from the conventions of puppeteering and theater model making. Their technical success hinges on the alignment of foreground, middle, and background pieces. When viewed from the front, this spatial composition creates an illusion of realistic depth.

In an era before television, movies, and home electronic entertainment, the theater reigned supreme. While late nineteenth-century parents enjoyed an evening out watching Gilbert and Sullivan, children staged their own productions in the playroom with the help of the tableau.