Just One Peep Please


indian clamshell mutoscope.jpg (78770 bytes)The Mutoscope was an early motion picture device. It was invented by Wm. Laurie Dickson and Herman Casler, and patented by Herman Casler on November 21, 1894. Like Thomas Edisonís Kinetoscope, it did not project on a screen and provided viewing to only one person at a time. Cheaper and simpler than the Kinetoscope, the Mutoscope, marketed by the American Mutoscope Company, later the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, quickly dominated the coin-fed peep show business.

In about 1895 American Mutoscope and Biograph Company began producing the coin operated picture movie viewer. The earliest versions of the Mutoscope movie viewer were made of wood in a very square looking box.

The Mutoscope worked on the same principle as the flipbook. The individual image frames were conventional black-and-white, silver-based photographic prints on tough, flexible opaque cards. Rather than being bound into a booklet, like the flipbook, the cards were attached to a circular core, quite like a huge Rolodex. A reel typically held about 850 cards, giving a viewing time of about a minute.

Mutoscopes were coin-operated. The patron viewed the cards through a single lens enclosed by a hood, similar to the viewing hood of a stereoscope. The cards were generally 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 crank could be turned in both directions, but this did not reverse the playing of the reel. Nor could the patron extend viewing time by stopping the crank because the flexible images were bent into the proper viewing position by tension applied from forward cranking. Stopping the crank reduced the forward tension on the reels causing the reel to go backwards and the picture to move from the viewing position; a spring in the mechanism turned off the light and in some models brought down a shutter which completely blocked out the picture.

Most actors appeared anonymously. Some reels were made in series like Happy Hooligan, Rip Van Winkle, and Foxy Grandpa. Single titles of some early reels were Alphonse and the Gaston Helping Irishman, An Affair of Honor, Deaf Mute Girl Reciting the Star Spangled Banner, How They Rob Men in Chicago, Babyís Day, Robbed of Her All, Wake in Hellís Kitchen, and Old Maid and the Burglar, all broad morality plays or comedies.

By about 1900, Mutoscope changed to a cast iron viewer, known as the clamshell Mutoscope. This style of viewer was produced until about 1909, when production halted.

Bill Rabkin purchased the rights to manufacture Mutoscope machines again, around 1926, and formed a new company called International Mutoscope Reel Company. From about 1926 until 1949, they produced Mutoscope machines using the same style card reels as the earlier machines. These viewers were no longer cast iron, but used sheet metal, and had an open frame or pedestal stand.

As far as Mutoscope movie reels go, the earlier movies were generally the more spicy variety, sometimes with topless women. When Rabkins bought Mutoscope, he largely policed himself and didnít release movie reels with naked women, though many were close. Rabkin did however play up the idea that the Mutoscope could be a peep show viewer, using very racy and spicy titles. The movies themselves never quite lived up to their titles. Other themes, like westerns and sports and comedy were also popular. The whole peep show mentality is what often kept Mutoscopes popular at arcades. The draw of new male patrons to put their money into spicy Mutoscope titles such as, French Dressing, X-Ray Gown, and Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath, made it hard to resist.

Newsreels, sporting events, and Hollywood films were cut by international Mutoscope, Co. to fit the one-minute viewing time. Although there was no censorship board for Mutoscope reels like there were for movies, the International Mutoscope Company made sure that the morality squads, which were in vogue in those days, would not attack the appropriateness of this type of entertainment.

polaroid6.jpg (186748 bytes)Mutoscopes were a popular feature of amusement arcades and pleasure piers in the UK until the introduction of decimal coinage in 1971. The coin mechanisms were difficult to convert, and many machines were subsequently destroyed; some were exported to Denmark where pornography had recently been legalized. The typical arcade installation included multiple machines offering a mixture of fare. Both in the early days and during the revival, that mixture usually included "girlie" reels that ran the gamut from risquť to outright soft-core pornography. It was, however, common for these reels to have suggestive titles that implied more than the reel actually delivered. The title of one such reel, What the Butler Saw, became a by-word, and Mutoscopes are commonly known in the UK as "What-the-Butler-Saw machines." What the butler saw, presumably through a keyhole, was a woman partially disrobing.

There was also another style of Mutoscope called the Mutoscope Selecto, available during the Bill Rabkinís era. This unit allowed the player to select from five different movie reels on a single Mutoscope unit. Unfortunately the movie reels for the Selecto are smaller and "reversed" (the pictures would be backwards) compared to the standard Mutoscope movie reel. The Selecto was a marketing failure too, probably because of the non-interchangeable reels. The Selecto machine also did not look like a standard Mutoscope since it had a wooden case with a marquee that displayed the five different movie titles.

The big problem with the Mutoscope was that only one person could watch at a time. The promoters of the Mutoscope, the K.M.C.D. Syndicate, tried to get around the issue by introducing Mutoscope parlors that housed several such machines. There was no way the machines could compete with the much more social and comfortable environment of a seated audience watching projected film. The Syndicate soon accepted this and introduced the Biograph, which enjoyed much greater success.

Production of the Mutoscope reels ceased completely in the 1950ís. Both the Mutoscope and the reels are highly sought after by todayís collector and both fetch high prices.

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