‘The World in a Box’: the Global History of the Peepshow [EN]

John Plunkett


As a simple and portable lens-based device, the peepshow was one of the commonest forms of
visual entertainment across nineteenth century Europe. Exhibited by a travelling showman who
added verbal narrative to the images, the peepshow was used to present stories of all kinds,
albeit view of foreign events and landscapes were enduringly popular. This box was one way
that 19th c Europeans looked at the broader world, but it would be just as accurate to call it the
box that travelled across the world. It was adapted into many diferent performance and
narrative traditions. In Persian, it was called the shahre farang [‘European city’], in Arabic, the
Sandook El Donya [‘box of wonders’], in pinyin it is la yang pian [‘pulled foreign pictures’], and,
in India, it was reinvented through the familiar figure of the bioscopewallah. My paper will
elaborate the various global forms of the peepshow as an example of transculturation: it will
compare similar accounts of their appeal, design and exhibition, and reflect on the way that the
device encourages a rethinking of Eurocentric accounts of 19th C media technologies and the
history of immersive media. It will also reflect on shared history of peepshow and stereoscopy,
and the methodological problems and opportunities deriving from researching the global
history of the peepshow.


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