The History of Hand Puppets

By Christina Hamlett

As far back as prehistoric times, people have used their hands to help convey stories to others. What originally began as simple shadows reflected on the walls of fire-lit caves grew to include materials and props that simulated reality and presented longer and more complex productions on a miniature scale.

Animating Inanimate Objects

Ancient cultures utilized objects found in nature--branches, rocks, flowers, animal bones--and gave them voice and movement to signify the co-existence of gods and men. Originally held in a hand visible to the audience, these were the predecessors to materials that would one day extend from fingertips to the wrists and elbows.

Religious Rituals

Hand and finger puppets wearing masks and representing religious figures were used in Far Eastern, Middle Eastern and South American celebrations as a way to reinforce messages about the consequences of evil deeds. These were constructed of leather, fabric, woven threads and paper.

Christianity

Because many of their flock did not know how to read, monks and priests learned puppetry skills to help teach scripture. Small faces were painted on the index finger and the bodies were gloves where the tips of the thumb and index and third fingers had been snipped off to reveal human flesh.

Medieval Europe

During the Middle Ages, touring productions featuring puppet plays were not only a way to share regional folk tales but also to make playful mockery of the upper classes in the context of entertainment that (supposedly) didn't represent a puppeteer's true views.

Street Theater

The 17th century brought the Italian debut of the bickering Punchinella and his wife, Joan, better known to their subsequent English audiences as Punch and Judy. Though the pair began their career as marionettes, their transition to glove-puppets not only made them easier to transport but also much easier for novices to master.

Materials

The popularity of Punch and Judy gave rise to the development of more elaborate (and expensive) hands and heads. Instead of cloth and paper, puppeteers began using wood, ceramics and eventually rubber and plastics. Puppet hair--once fashioned from bark, yarn, string and even human locks--was replaced by synthetics.

About the Author

Ghostwriter and film consultant Christina Hamlett has written professionally since 1970. Her credits include many books, plays, optioned features, articles and interviews. Publishers include HarperCollins, Michael Wiese Productions, "PLAYS," "Writer's Digest" and "The Writer." She holds a B.A. in communications (emphasis on audience analysis and message design) from California State University, Sacramento. She also travels extensively and is a gourmet chef.