Who Would You Like to Be Today?

In the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, paper toys were very popular. They were cheap to make (thanks to advances in the automation of the paper-making industry) and they were plentiful.

Merchants often used paper toys as giveaways, while other paper toys could be purchased for pennies.

An ad in a 1908 issue of The Ladies Home Journal.


There were paper airplanes and spinning tops, paper dolls and paper furniture for paper houses.

But in 1905 something unusual happened in the paper toy industry. In November of that year, Tuck & Sons, the famous London-based printing house, released a new paper toy in America.

A winning jockey

The new toy was a paper half-mask children could wear. The masks were issued in a series format, with each series based on a theme, such as literary figures, historical people, or costumes from foreign lands.

A Dutch girl.

The masks were wildly popular for two reasons. First, the artwork was exceptional.


There were no cartoonish drawings here; each mask was beautifully detailed and life-like.

A woman motorist.

The second reason the masks were popular: Adults liked to wear them, too. In fact, adults bought and wore the masks more often than children did.

Carmen, from the opera series.

By the summer of 1906 Tuck was producing the masks in adult sizes, and they were selling like hotcakes.

Granny in her cap.

Hostesses handed them out at parties, and some adults fashioned new games to play in the evening while wearing the masks.

An old tramp.

Here’s an idea for a masked party for young adults that appeared in a 1908 issue of The Woman’s Home Companion:

Adults all across America had fun pretending to be someone other than who they really were!

Cousin Kate, the focus of the popular poem of the same name, by Christina Georgina Rosetti.

Isabella probably did not participate in the fun. In her 1902 novel Unto the End Isabella acknowledges the popularity of masked parties and full-costume masquerades, to the misfortune of one her characters, Grace Landis.

Several times in the story Grace has to find the balance between her father’s more worldly ways and her mother’s religious convictions (that, incidentally, align with Isabella’s). In one scene Grace tells her mother:

“Has [father] told you of the party which is to be at Mr. McAllison’s in a few weeks, where the people are all to dress in character, and wear masks? Some of the characters are what I am sure you would call ‘questionable,’ and as for masks, I did not know that refined society approved of them, but my father wants me to wear one.”

Amazingly, some of those one-hundred-year-old paper Tuck masks have survived, and they’re popular collectors’ items. You can find them for sale on retail websites like Etsy, as well as new masks that are fashioned along the same style as the Tuck originals.

You can see our previous post about paper dolls by clicking here.

Read our post about other paper toys by clicking here.

View more masks on Etsy by clicking here.





11 thoughts on “Who Would You Like to Be Today?

  1. I’m always interested to see the context of her stories…I can see why Isabella would shun these masks. I was thinking she meant typical half-masks, a la Halloween, such as the ladies of the night wore in Venice back in the day…which has its own set of associations. Masking oneself at a party was a way of blurring distinctions, so that lower social orders and unwelcome guests could hoodwink young ladies and compromise their morals. At least, that’s always been my understanding of why Christians in that day frowned on masks. They were considered immoral and tools for disrupting the protections that society erected to keep young ones safe. Fascinating!! Thanks again!

    1. I think masks were also seen as a way of promoting anonymity, which, in turn, encouraged people to lose their inhibitions and do/say things they wouldn’t normally. Kind of the same phenomenon we see on social media sites today. 🙂 Jenny

  2. What an interesting article! It’s interesting to see how ideas and opinions have molded over the years. I think I wouldn’t want to wear a mask all evening though, haha! And being that my mom is the 21st century Isabella Alden, I wouldn’t have to worry about that ❤

    1. I agree with you about wearing a mask all night, Ryana Lynn; I think it would get uncomfortable, too. Your mention of your mother caught my attention; is she an author, too? —Jenny

      1. No, that would be me, lol! She is very much like Mrs. Alden, in that she’s always giving us sound advice to live by.

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