Playful Visions

Playful Visions

Optical Toys and the Emergence of Children's Media Culture

By Meredith A. Bak

The kaleidoscope, the stereoscope, and other nineteenth-century optical toys analyzed as “new media” of their era, provoking anxieties similar to our own about children and screens.





The kaleidoscope, the stereoscope, and other nineteenth-century optical toys analyzed as “new media” of their era, provoking anxieties similar to our own about children and screens.

In the nineteenth century, the kaleidoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the stereoscope, and other optical toys were standard accessories of a middle-class childhood, used both at home and at school. In Playful Visions, Meredith Bak argues that the optical toys of the nineteenth century were the “new media” of their era, teaching children to be discerning consumers of media—and also provoking anxieties similar to contemporary worries about children's screen time. Bak shows that optical toys—which produced visual effects ranging from a moving image to the illusion of depth—established and reinforced a new understanding of vision as an interpretive process. At the same time, the expansion of the middle class as well as education and labor reforms contributed to a new notion of childhood as a time of innocence and play. Modern media culture and the emergence of modern Western childhood are thus deeply interconnected.

Drawing on extensive archival research, Bak discusses, among other things, the circulation of optical toys, and the wide visibility gained by their appearance as printed templates and textual descriptions in periodicals; expanding conceptions of literacy, which came to include visual acuity; and how optical play allowed children to exercise a sense of visual mastery. She examines optical toys alongside related visual technologies including chromolithography—which inspired both chromatic delight and chromophobia. Finally, considering the contemporary use of optical toys in advertising, education, and art, Bak analyzes the endurance of nineteenth-century visual paradigms.


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262538718 288 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 8 color photos, 35 b&w photos


  • “Meredith Bak's sumptuous critical history of the roots of today's animated images is no mere ticking off of inventions and contraptions—as fascinating as they are. Her book is also an account of how evolving concepts of the child, the nuclear family, education, science, and spirituality played their parts in the formation of the phenomena of moving pictures, their consumers, and audiences.”

    Donald Crafton

    Robbie Professor Emeritus of Film, Television, and Theater, University of Notre Dame

  • “Packed with historical and theoretical insights, Playful Visions shows us how taking a deep dive into the past can illuminate our understanding of the present moment. Meredith Bak's brilliant analysis of how optical toys and movable books popularized a set of visual practices that we now call media literacy is powerfully revelatory, especially when it touches on the critically important issue of how these playful objects naturalized norms and prejudices related to gender, race, and especially class.”

    Marah Gubar

    Associate Professor of Literature, MIT; author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature

  • ”Situated at the intersection of childhood studies and media archaeology, Bak's meticulous study offers fresh insights into the incubation era of media culture in the nineteenth century. Eschewing familiar commonplaces and simplistic polarities, Playful Visions penetrates deep into children's preoccupation with optical toys, demonstrating how ludic and educational experiences laid some of the foundations of today's media-saturated society.”

    Erkki Huhtamo

    Professor of Design Media Arts and Film, Television, and Digital Media, UCLA