The Atlantic

When Pop-Up Books Taught Popular Science

Before they were relegated to the domain of children, books with movable mechanisms explained anatomy, astronomy, and more to adults. An Object Lesson.
Source: Wellcome Collection

Today, books with pop-up illustrations—flaps to be lifted, tabs to be pulled, and wheels to be turned—form a small niche of the book market. Mostly, pop-up books are meant to get young children interested in books and reading. Once that interest is kindled, pop-ups are discarded for more sophisticated reading material.

The charm and whimsy of pop-up books might seem far removed from the dry seriousness of technical literature. But during the first three centuries of printing, from about 1450 to 1750, most pop-ups appeared in scientific books. Movable paper parts were once used to explain the movements of the moon, the five regular geometric solids, the connections between the eye and the brain, and more. Although there are examples in medieval manuscripts, pop-ups became prominent during the age of print, when there was a rising demand for books on scientific subjects.


The invention of printing was accompanied by a surge in . Readers expanded beyond the small, wealthy, educated elite that held medieval manuscripts. These new readers were hungry for knowledge. Scientific, technical, and types of books produced during the early era of print.

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