The text below was kindly provided by Amanda M. Brian, recipient of a 2012 Princeton Library Research Grant, following her August 2012 research project with Cotsen Children’s Library special collection materials: “The Wider & Whiter World in German Mechanical Books.” Dr. Brian is currently assistant professor of history at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.
Lothar Meggendorfer’s Mechanical Books
by Amanda M. Brian
Beginning in the 1970s, pop-up books enjoyed a kind of renaissance in the United States. Within this trend, the name of Lothar Meggendorfer (1847-1925) was continually floated as an early master of movable illustrations in children’s books. Meggendorfer began his career as an illustrator for the Munich-based humor magazines Fliegende Blätter and then Münchener Bilderbogen. Like several of his colleagues at these publications, Meggendorfer became a crossover success in the world of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century children’s literature. His books became bestsellers during his lifetime; the most popular went into multiple editions and were translated into many languages.
It seems he was aware of both his influence and its monetary reward, for he included a telling self-portrait in which he stood at an easel and received a commission in Gute Bekannte. This discovery was one of several unexpected and deeply satisfying moments that I experienced as a researcher in the Rare Book Division at the Princeton University Library.
Moreover, Meggendorfer’s books were frequently reproduced and widely distributed along a German-British publishing network, which then collapsed in the face of World War I. After the war, Meggendorfer continued his work in puppet theater, a passion that had clearly influenced his figures’ exaggerated physiognomy, especially their large noses and wide mouths.
Then in 1975, the New York book dealer Justin G. Schiller purchased and prepared a catalog of a cache of production files found in J. F. Schreiber’s Esslingen warehouse for what was believed at the time to be the entire surviving Meggendorfer archive. Maurice Sendak provided an aptly named “Appreciation” in Schiller’s The Publishing Archive of Lothar Meggendorfer, adding to a certain frenzy for Meggendorfer’s books, particularly his movable books. Following this advertising, between 1979 and 1982, five of Meggendorfer’s most popular movable books were reissued and reproduced, culminating in 1985 in a kind of anthology of his most intricate and humorous pull-tab illustrations, The Genius of Lothar Meggendorfer. This relatively recent attention has cemented Meggendorfer’s reputation as a paper-engineering master on both sides of the North Atlantic. It is, therefore, not too surprising to find such an extensive collection of Meggendorfer’s children’s books in the United States; the Cotsen Children’s Library has perhaps the best examples of his works States-side, which is particularly impressive considering the wear and tear movable illustrations from over a century ago have taken.
Cotsen Children’s Library also houses an almost equal number of Meggendorfer’s non-movable books to his movable books. This acts as a kind of corrective to the amount of attention afforded his pull-tabs and panoramas at the expense of his overall production of texts and images. His self-portrait, after all, was in the non-movable Gute Bekannte. A collection that just focused on Meggendorfer’s elaborate pull-tabs–which, do not misunderstand me, are impressive with their simultaneous movements achieved by paper levers attached to small copper rivets hidden between the pages–would overlook the non-moveable (in the scholarly definition of movable parts) but equally interactive Nimm mich mit!
This small, 8 centimeters by 24 centimeters, picture book was designed for the non-reading, or read-to, child to “take along” around the home and into the field to compare the drawn object to the real object. It presented a comprehensive catalog of things in the child’s “garden and room” to be examined “with love,” as the introduction explained. For example, pages 125 to 184, the largest section of the book, portrayed animals with skill at expressive caricatures. Many of these animals could have been found in the child’s backyard (e.g., chicken and grasshooper), nearby woods (e.g., deer and hedgehog), or traveling menagerie (e.g., elephant and parrot), but some of these animals (e.g., whale and ostrich), the child would not have seen in nature.
In Meggendorfer’s oeuvre, animals were the most pervasive theme, followed by music. Focusing on the content and not just the mechanics of his works, it is clear that Meggendorfer’s audience was expected to identify and enjoy both domestic and foreign animals. But there were clear differences between how he portrayed domestics–meaning both native to Europe and pervasive in his audience’s lives, like dogs, horses, and sparrows–and exotics–meaning non-native to Europe and perceived as wild by his audience, like elephants, lions, and apes. How domestic and exotic animals behaved differently became instructive in Meggendorfer’s books, representing hierarchies among and between Europeans and non-Europeans, and teaching his middle-class youthful audience about their place in the world.
To offer but a single example, compare the poem with the movable illustration “Good Friends” [above] in the British production All Alive, which featured rabbits, a goat, and a cat as a “happy family,” to the poem with movable illustration “Die Heimkehr” [below] in the original German version Reiseabenteuer des Malers Daumenlang und seines Dieners Damian.
In “Good Friends,” the ideal middle-class home was portrayed by domestic animals “living in such harmony.” Domestic animals continued to model appropriate behavior for bourgeois children in Meggendorfer’s works. By contrast, in “Die Heimkehr,” the young lord, Daumenlang, and his servant, Damian, have traveled the world, including Africa, and have headed for home loaded down with booty, including the skins of the tiger and black bear that they had encountered and mastered, and live apes and birds. They found danger, but not harmony, among exotic animals, which were perceived as part of the conquerable landscape of certain non-European territories. I first saw the illustration of the tiger “attack” from Reiseabenteuer in the Cotsen Library; those pages have been excised in the late-twentieth-century reproduction of the book.
The books by Lothar Meggendorfer that delighted audiences in the late nineteenth century and were embraced with enthusiasm in the late twentieth century were not simply examples of paper acrobatics. Rather, they both reflected and shaped the historical context of the expanding German empire at the turn of the twentieth century.