Today’s Favourite Word: Mutoscope
Before the arrival of films, New York City had over a thousand mutoscopes housed under one roof. You could find them on any seaside pier, and a handful were still in operation when I was a kid. They’re better known as ‘What The Butler Saw” machines.
A mutoscopes was a mechanical flip book with about 850 sturdy cardboard pages attached to a central core, flipped by a ratchet. They were coin-operated, and you viewed the cards through a single lens enclosed by a hood, similar to the viewing hood of a stereoscope. The cards were lit electrically, but the reel was driven by means of a geared-down hand crank. Each machine held only a single reel and was dedicated to the presentation of a single short subject, described by a poster affixed to the machine. The patron could control the presentation speed only to a limited degree.
The machines were still popular in Britain until decimal currency arrived in 1971; they couldn’t be converted. Most seaside ones showed portly ladies undulating in ‘exotic’ settings that consisted of two potted ferns, but there’s a curious quality to them, partly because of the age-spotting on the flickering photographs, that lends them a rather beautiful air. I imagine few can be found in museums, but I don’t know where you’d see them in the UK.