Peep Egg Viewer

History | How it works | What became of it  
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History:

Peep egg viewers, also called alabaster eggs, were hand viewers used primarily as souvenirs near the turn of the century.  They are slightly larger than regular chicken eggs, which is likely why they were called peep eggs.

The peep egg is related to the peep show.  Looking through a peep egg was an activity only single persons could enjoy, but large crowds of people would often show up to see a peep show.  Peep shows traveled from town to town, and were one of the most popular forms of entertainment available.  These shows were often made up of little more than a room with three walls, and a fourth wall with a small hole in it.  People would line up in front of the hole and wait their turn to peep through it; on the other side would be a scene of something fanciful and imaginative.  

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How it works:

The peep egg is only a viewer; it does not create any illusions of motion.  There is a lens at top that slightly magnifies an image painted onto a small piece of translucent alabaster stone.  Light goes through the stone from the bottom end to illuminate the picture; if one covered the bottom end with a hand, nothing but darkness would be seen.  Some peep eggs have two or three different images that can be displayed by turning a small lever or handle.

What became of it:

The peep egg was quite popular from the turn of the century to the early 1900s, but the peep show had been around from the 17th century until then.  They both operated on the same principle--looking into something to see a fanciful imaginary or real, hand-painted image.  The difference was in the number of people who were peeping at once.  Peep eggs were to the peep show as television is to a theatre.  When peep eggs were invented, people could take the peep show home with them.

When the peep show began to lose popularity around the turn of the century, the peep egg became a souvenir item in many places.  The image printed on the alabaster stone would often be a picture of a famous location in a particular city or countryside.

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Sources:

Interview with Dr. Ralph Wileman, July 24, 2000