Trash or Treasure?

Early motion picture machines can fetch Hollywood prices


The “Mutoscope” was an early motion picture device created in the late 1890’s. It worked on a flip-book principle which had cards set around the perimeter of a round drum. When you cranked the handle, the drum flipped through the cards giving the impression of movement. A player inserts a coin which engages the gears to a hand crank turned by the viewer. A light goes on and the pictures begin to flip. The player can control the speed of the film and can stop it at any time for a closer look. The movie reel usually contained upwards of 850 cards. After a full revolution, the light goes off and another coin needs to be inserted.

Because the aperture was so small, it was much like peeking through a keyhole to watch the movie. Most of the earliest movies were of partially clad women undressing. Thus the word “peep show”. One of the most popular was called “What The Butler Saw” which was based on the 1886 divorce case of Lord Colin Campbell and Gertrude Elizabeth Blood. The trial hinged on the testimony of the butler, who claimed to have seen Gertrude engaging in several affairs through the keyhole of the dining room door of their home in London. Each jury member in the trial was summoned to look through the keyhole to see if the evidence was probable. All members of the jury agreed that it was and settled the case.

Mutoscopes were popular until the 1940’s and some had early cartoons and silent movies such as Charlie Chaplin films, “Felix the Cat” and “Popeye”. They were a common sight at penny arcades, carnivals and fairgrounds. As you can imagine, these machines in good condition are sought after by collectors and are fun for all to operate.

Prices for mutoscopes range from about $1,000 to $5,000 at auction depending on the movie and the maker. Rare examples have sold for as much as $30,000.

Karen Waterman is a fine art, antique furniture and decorative arts appraiser in the East Bay area and will answer as many questions regarding your “hidden treasures” as possible. By sending a letter or email with a question you give full permission for use in the column. Names, addresses or e-mail will not be published and photos will be returned if requested. Send e-mails (digital photos preferred ) to


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