Lewis Latimer (1848-1928): Renaissance Man
What is a puppet?
Puppets are man-made figures whose movements are controlled by humans. They can be moved by hand, strings, wires, or rods. Puppets may be persons, animals, plants; look like stuffed toys, dolls, or anything else one desires; and are usually featured in plays called puppet shows. People who operate, or manipulate, puppets are called puppeteers.
People have enjoyed puppets for thousands of years, but no one knows exactly when the fine art of puppetry began; puppet-like figures have been found in tombs and ruins in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. There are many types of puppets, each type having its identifying characteristics. Some of the basic types described below represent a variety of inventive technologies inherent in their construction.
Since the hands alone can produce movements, the hand puppet is one of the easiest to make, but requires practice to operate successfully. In its simplest form, it requires only your hand to be the puppet's head with the thumb as the mouth or jaw. The hand can also be the entire body of the puppet: two fingers can move the arms and one finger be the head. For example, when a costume or piece of cloth is drawn over the head like a glove, the thumb and middle finger can be the arms and the forefinger the head. Finger puppets are probably the simplest kind of hand puppet. The puppeteer's index and middle fingers serve as the puppet's legs, and the face can be painted on the back of the hand.
Another type of hand puppet is the glove puppet. Although most glove puppets do not have feet or legs, they are able to pick up and toss things and move the head and arms. Glove puppets became popular on children's television programs such as "Sesame Street" and "Captain Kangaroo."
Perhaps the most famous glove puppet character is Punch, star of English Punch and Judy shows. Punch is a savvy, comic character who most often emerges victorious from his encounters with a cast of stock characters. His best known adversary is his wife, Judy. There are a number of standard characters in the Punch and Judy performances that different puppeteers vary to suit their individual needs and tastes. The shows were popular in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The ventriloquist's dummy can be a hand puppet, such as Shari Lewis's Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy, or a rod puppet as large as Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy, which is about one-half adult size. The performance consists of action and conversation between the dummy and the ventriloquist, who "throws" his or her voice so that the dummy seems to be talking. A dummy such as Charlie McCarthy was controlled from the back and held level with the ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen. Strings and rods on the inside worked the head, while the ventriloquist's arm gave movement to the dummy's body as it supported it. The dummies are actually puppets that play an important part in the art of ventriloquism.
Marionettes are puppets that are operated from above by strings attached to the body. The strings run from the head, shoulders, hands, and knees to a small wooden frame. The puppeteers, who are hidden above the stage, manage the marionettes by moving the strings where they are fastened to the frame. These string-operated puppets are among the most complicated types.
Muppets, another type of hand puppet, were developed for television by Jim Henson. This small puppet has a wide mouth, with the puppeteer's thumb forming the jaw. The fingers form the upper part of the muppet's face. The puppeteer moves various fingers to change the muppet's expression and the shape of its head. The puppeteer's other hand, which is concealed in a glove, forms the muppet's body or hand.
Shadow puppets are flat silhouette figures which are moved by means of rods held by the puppeteers. The figures cast either a black shadow or a brightly colored one, depending on the materials used to make them. They may consist of one piece or of two or more pieces that are jointed together to give movement. Traditionally, shadow puppets are made from animal hides which have the thickness and stiffness of a drum head.
Rod puppets are operated by rods or sticks, usually from below the stage. Sometimes called stick puppets, they are supported from below by a rod held in one hand, while the other hand operates rods attached to the puppet's hands. Rod puppets are particularly popular in Asia. You can make a puppet come to life by moving rods attached to the puppet's arms, legs, and body. When your hand moves the rods, the rods move the puppet. The simplest of these are figures made on a single stick. More complicated rod puppets have jointed limbs, jaws, and even eyes that are operated by additional rods or by strings. Rod puppets are used frequently to represent objects other than people and animals, such as hats, flowers, trees, and simple shapes such as mountains. The most basic type of rod puppet is the marotte, which is simply a head mounted on a stick. The Crowtations are of the large hand, rod, and string type. Due to the relative complexity of their construction, they can be manipulated to appear as very real-life characters.
All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 26 February 1999.