Optical Toys – Peepshows, 3-D but not Topographers

Zoetrope Optical Toy

Optical toys have been educating and entertaining people for hundreds of years. During the 1800s many toys were invented that used moving pictures. Some, such as the zoetrope, had a series of still images and rely on persistence of vision – the eye will remember an image for a brief moment and changing the image at speed gives the illusion of movement.

Three dimensional optical toys range from peepshows that are actually built in 3-D to flat images that become 3-D when looked at through colored glasses or stereoscopes. Many optical toys use mirrors and lenses; for example, periscopes, to enhance your viewpoint and kaleidoscopes to create a particular visual effect .

Magic Lantern

People have used light to make projections of shapes for hundreds of years. All that is needed is a light source, something to place in front of it and a blank wall or screen to project onto.


Peepshow Optical Toy

Unfortunately, the word “peepshow” conjures up less innocent images than the one I remember as a child when I made one using a shoe box and meticulously cut paper boxes, and shapes of animals.

They consist of a series of small boxes set within one large box. Each box contains a scene with colored cut-outs. This was a very different concept compared to the 19th century traveling peepshows which were displayed at fairs in Europe. Traveling peepshows were large enough for several people to view at the same time and would have had changing pictures and light alterations. This type of peepshow was also known as a raree show.


A zoetrope, a forgotten word to me, is a drum shaped optical toy that makes a series of drawings appear to move. The drum sits on a stand upon which it can be spun.


Decidedly and definitely not a toy but an essential piece of optical equipment available from Vision Systems when you need one.

A display with one or more of these old optical toys would be fun and a different eyewear merchandising idea for a little “eye can’t believe it” opti-fun.

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