Today’s Favourite Word: Mutoscope

Great Britain, The Arts

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.

7 comments on “Today’s Favourite Word: Mutoscope”

  1. Alan G says:

    Egad – I remember these! They had some on the pier at Largs (West coast of Scotland) when I was just a tiddler. You could buy the old coins from a booth to operate them – well, rent the old coins I suppose.

    I don’t remember that much about the content – I guess I was too small to understand, and anyway my Mum caught me after a few seconds.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Some had comedy bits in them in sddition to sights and some were a tad sexy, but compared to what one would find now: sexy ha! Some of the great comedy stars of the early 20th century appeared in these, as did many of our early national parks. Coney island was a good place, here, to go view them. (These are not to be confused with peepshows, which worked in a similar stooped-over fashion only offen without the crank on the side of the machine. Many were more instructive on the female of the species; and kids either couldn’t get in or were run out, (I’m relying mostly on my dad here, as I was not yet around. I wonder if Dad was influenced into going into show business as a result of craking viewing. Too late to ask.
    Mutoscope a fine old educational medium. Much more up to date than just hunkering down in the tall weeds.
    (Unless there’s a left foot peddle on each of the machine bases above, the shot looks posed. Many were.)
    I’ve had a middle of the night snack, so it’s back to the rack,

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Given ‘offen’ and ‘craking’ in the above, Dan, I hope the ‘rack’ was a bed in which you actually slept. I’m thinking of keeping a record of the incredible list of contacts which have coloured your life, nationally and internationally both.

  4. John Howard says:

    Ooooh, more memories. I do remember seeing these on, believe it or not, a scout summer holiday day trip. We must have had fairly lax scout masters although I didn’t realise it at the time. I agree Dan I do suspect the shot was posed, not enough variety for a naturalistic shot. The shot could almost have been one for a subject of the machines themselves. Talking about the method of viewing reminds me of an almost teen (i.e. me) desperately trying to make the roll last for as long as possible. A case of trying to get my pennies worth. These were also the days when a Mars bar cost three of those big boys.

  5. John Howard says:

    P.S. Not managed to use Emeute yet. It’s time will come.

  6. snowy says:

    One of these turns up in a episode of Steptoe and Son, where Harold finds a “What the Butler Saw” machine. He is rather enjoying the content, until he suddenly and horrifyingly, realises who one of the “actors” is.

    I think the crank also span a flywheel, so you couldn’t pause the ‘show’ at ‘the good bits’. Even if you stopped turning there was enough energy stored to keep the pictures moving to the end.

    I guess MoMI might have had some when it was open, the NMM in Bradford might have some still?

    Perhaps we should start an gentle emeute to get the former re-opened.

  7. John Howard says:

    Nice on Snowy. I saw what you did there…

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