History of Talking Figures

The art of using the voice for misdirection began long before the first puppet was ever thought of. And the very first puppets were silent, without voice. So how and when did someone decide to give puppets a voice? The article below is one of the best I've read addressing this subject and is reprinted from Frank Marshall's 1931 figure catalog.

By Paul McPharlin

We may pass a man in the street every day without looking at him. But if somebody points him out to us as a descendant of a Mayflower settler, or one of the early presidents of the United States, we may observe him sharply, and see quite a bit in him. So it is with those wooden figures, the puppets in a Punch and Judy show, or on the knee of a ventriloquist. We take them very much for granted. Who invented them? Somebody who lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, about 1620? No!, for they existed long before that. Dates and places are difficult to fix, puppets were conceived so long ago.

The primitive man who hit upon the trick of speaking by emitting air from his lungs slowly through the glottis, without perceptible movement of his lips or jaws, may well have mystified his companions. They were ready to believe that a tree, or a rock, or any other strange object nearby, was causing the words. The ventriloquist, with his magic power, became identified with spirits and demons, a creator of awe among his fellow mortals. When he set up as priest, intermediary between man and spirits, he used his ventriloquial skill in causing images of those spirits to speak. The images he might make with moving heads and lips - the first puppets - so that the words might all the more seem to issue from their throats.

We have records that such images were used in ancient Egypt and Greece at least four centuries before the Christian era. They belonged in the temples. However; they fascinated because they spoke prophesies and divine judgements.

A century or two later, string puppets (more of the kind we know) and shadow-puppets of the translucent parchment, in human form, came to be used in Greece and China respectively. At first considered supernatural when they spoke, these little figures in time began to be considered less seriously, as they learned to joke and perform antics and be human. They sang and danced, with short memory of their magic origin. The two basic types of puppets, the shadow from China and the string, or hand-operated figures from Greece, began to travel also. The first came west, and arrived in Europe in the eighteenth century as Chinese Shadows. The second went eastward, and got to China and Japan somewhat sooner, for they have been known in those countries, and even in Alaska (which is thought to have been settled by Asiatics) for centuries.

When puppets became dramatic performers, and their operator was hidden behind his miniature stage, he had no need of ventriloquism; but the ancient art was preserved by the manipulator who made no use of scene or stage, and who conversed with the lay-figure seated before him.

In the dark church of the middle ages, moving perhaps as only flickering candles caught the gold embroideries of their garment, stood little figures to portray scenes from biblical lore. In the center would be the sweet heroine, Mary - who gives her name to marionettes.

So when you see Punch and Judy, or the ventriloquist's smart boy, chattering thoughtlessly away, look closely, and you may be able to detect a trace of those dim ancestors who filled with awe the worshipper by the Nile, or the Emperor in his Asiatic palace, or the medieval pilgrim.

As in the past, so today, figures are used for entertaining. The modern figure is very much different from those used in the past. Figures today must be natural in appearance and mechanically perfect.
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Paul McPharlin (1903-48) was an inventive puppet maker and skilled performer. He was a founding member of the Puppeteers of America. In 1929 McPharlin established the Marionette Fellowship of Detroit. I reprinted his above work, published 1931, because I feel it is an accurate thumbnail synopsis of the evolution of talking puppets including ventriloquist figures.


  1. Anonymous8/01/2011

    Thanks for sharing that Clinton. VERY interesting. There is a documentary that was done on the history of puppets that may interest folks here also. It's called "The American Puppet. The history of puppetry in America", & was shown on pbs a while back. Amazon has it, & the dvd version is called "Stories of puppets", but i read the info & it's obviously the same one. Mainly dealing with hand puppets & marionettes, but it does have a brief bit about Bergen, Winchell, & i think Shari lewis. WONDERFULLY done! My only complaint is it's too short! Of course, if it was 8 hours long, i'd still say that. That's how good it is. Just a suggestion. Here's the amazon link if you like. Bill Smith

  2. Normally blogs with links are filtered out, but I'll override on this one.

  3. I have that DVD is is quite good.