Meet Ellen Rubin (aka The Popuplady) and Her Collection of 9,000 Pop-Up Books

It’s unusual to encounter a pop-up book for sale in a thrift store.

Their enthusiastic child owners tend to work them so hard, that eventually even sentimental value is trashed.

Stuck slider bars and torn flaps scotch the element of surprise.

Scenes that once sprang to crisp attention can barely manage a flaccid 45° angle.

One good yank and Cinderella’s coach gives way forever, leaving an unsightly crust of dried glue.




Their natural tendency toward obsolescence only serves to make author Ellen G. K. Rubin’s international collection of more than 9000 pop-up and moveable books all the more astonishing.

The Popuplady—an honorific she sports with pride—would like to correct three commonly held beliefs about the objects of her highly specialized expertise:

  1. They are not a recent phenomenon. One item in her collection dates back to 1547.
  2. They were not originally designed for use by children (as a 1933 flip book with photo illustrations on how women can become better sexual partners would seem to indicate.)
  3. They were once conceived of as excellent educational tools in such weighty subjects as mathematics, astronomy, medicine... and, as mentioned above, the boudoir.

A Yale trained physician’s assistant, she found that her hobby generated much warmer interest at social events than her daily toil in the area of bone marrow transplants.

And while paper engineering may not be not brain surgery, it does require high levels of artistry and technical prowess. It galls Rubin that until recently, paper engineers went uncredited on the books they had animated:

Paper engineers are the artists who take the illustrations and make them move. They are puppetmasters, but they hand the strings to us, the reader.

As seen in Atlas Obscura’s video, above, Rubin’s collection includes a moving postage stamp, a number of wheel-shaped volvelles, and a one-of-a-kind elephant-themed mini-book her friend, paper engineer, Edward H. Hutchins, created from elephant dung paper she found on safari.

She has curated or served as consultant for a number of pop-up exhibitions at venues including the Brooklyn Public Library, the Biennes Center of the Literary Arts and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. See a few more examples from her collection, which were displayed as part of the latter’s Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn exhibition here.

Related Content:

The Raven: a Pop-up Book Brings Edgar Allan Poe’s Classic Supernatural Poem to 3D Paper Life

French Bookstore Blends Real People’s Faces with Book Cover Art

Wonderfully Weird & Ingenious Medieval Books

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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