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The Collation

Rehousing our tinsel print collection

Tinsel prints are a unique English art form from the early and mid-19th century. They are typically composed of metal foils, fabric scraps, leather, feathers, and any other suitable material glued onto printed portraits of actors and actresses.

Mr Yates as the Red Rover (after conservation treatment)

Theatrical tinsel portraits have their roots in “patch portraits,” which were introduced to England by French prisoners of war in the late 18th century. This technique was embraced in England as a perfect home craft. Initially only the prints were acquired from the print dealer shop, and the metal sheets were cut out by the amateur tinseller to embellish his character. From the 1830s on this divertissement caught on so that you could acquire your embellishments in shops selling portraits and plays. The various metal tinsel shapes were produced by a gunsmith with an array of steel punches or dies that he would use for stamping out the different shapes and sizes, such as swords, helmets, spurs, or even minute dots to embellish the sword. These embellishments were varnished or glazed in a variety of colors, often red or green. 1

Today this form of art has become quite rare, the remains in some forgotten attic. But in 2003, the Folger Shakespeare Library received the Peggy Cass and Carl Fisher Collection of Tinsel Prints, consisting of 53 prints from the 1830s and later; this collection greatly expanded the Folger’s holdings, placing it among the world’s major collections of this art form. Actress Peggy Cass is best known for creating the role of Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame, for which she won a Tony Award and was nominated for an Oscar. Later, she was a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth and other television game shows. Her daughter inherited the collection, and gifted this portion to the Folger.

  1. The History of the English Toy Theatre, George Speaight, revised edition, Boston: Plays Inc., 1969.
  2. A tide-line is the dark line at the outermost margin of a liquid migration into a paper artifact. This darkened line is actually dirt and degradation material transported by the liquid; the dirt sets itself deep into the paper fibers, becoming difficult to remove.
  3. Offgassing refers to the release of chemical gasses from an item as it ages and degrades.


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