The jumping jack is an articulated, flat or sometimes three-dimensional puppet. Its limbs are manipulated using strings. These are grouped and attached to a single string, situated below the figure and the basic movement of the jumping jack is produced by pulling on this string which causes the arms and legs to move up and down. It is also possible to have jumping jacks operated by one or more strings located above or to the side.
Jumping jacks were popular in many countries including England and Germany, where they were known as Hamplemann. In France they were especially popular and generally known as “pantins”. In 1747, there was a fashion for carrying male and female jumping jacks around everywhere as an expression of good form. These jumping jacks represented typical characters of the commedia dell’arte and also libertine figures and were sold for 80 sous. Some were sold for extraordinary prices. The Duchess of Chartres once gave 1,500 livres (pounds) for a figure painted by François Boucher. D’Alembert wrote in his memoires: “Everywhere in the street, in the salons where they were hung from chimneys, at court, in the theatre, on the promenades, one could see, not only children and women, but even the elderly, pull jumping jacks from their pocket and make them dance in the most serious manner in the world.” (Jean Villiers, “Il y a 230 ans”, in Revue Unima, No. 46, 1973).
The jumping jack was widespread in the 19th century through popular imagery, much of it produced by Pellerin in Épinal (France). Peddlers sold coloured and stencilled prints which could be pasted onto cardboard, cut out, assembled using pins and then fitted out with strings. Jumping jacks were often in the image of Polichinelle and sometimes of politicians, who were lampooned in this way.
Generally regarded more as a toy, the jumping jack can however play a role in performance. If we look more closely, lever-operated puppets strongly resemble jumping jacks with strings running to levers attached to a single control.
In general, a jumping jack has three features – the strings are attached close to the pivot so that the physical principle of the lever can come into play; the parts are animated on a single plane only; and, finally, the manipulation depends on a single string to animate all the others.
There are jumping jacks in many parts of the world, including Portugal and North-east Brazil where they are called mané gostoso. In Arizona and New Mexico, there is a Hopi variant of the jumping jack. Carved out of wood and crudely painted, these figures consist of a body-head element, with the lower part hollowed out and drilled through to allow for strings to attach the legs. At shoulder level, the arms are articulated in the same way. A double string passes through holes in the hands. It is crossed between the hands, and pulling on the loop in the string causes it to untwist, making the acrobat somersault (a similar principle exists with popular children’s toys which have a figure hung between two uprights sticks). Native Americans also have transforming masks that open like triptychs. A remarkable example of this particular form of jumping jack is a polychrome Kwakiutl wood sculpture from the 19th century, originally from British Colombia in Canada that, when closed, represents a tutelary figure of a bird and, once opened, displays an impressive mask of a painted human face with a total width of 1.3 metres. The Tsimshian people of Canada wore a mask when they acceded to chieftainship. Two puppets with articulated arms were animated on the top of the mask by means of strings, exactly like jumping jacks.
Certain puppets in Africa also resemble jumping jacks. This is the case of some Yoruba carved wooden masks. Below the mask is a skirt of plant fibres to hide the manipulator. On the level above the head are displayed three articulated characters, dressed in cloth. The middle one seems to be held prisoner by the other two. A diagonally placed wooden duct at the side allows for a string to pass to the inside of the mask. By alternately pulling and releasing the string, the wearer of the mask can manipulate the jumping jacks that tug and yank at the central figure. There are also Bambara puppet masks worn for travelling shows in Mali. They are about 1.4 metres high and represent an animal head carved from wood, painted, and dressed in fabric. Two posts jut out of its head, and onto these four characters, dressed in fabric, are attached. Their arms and legs are articulated and animated by means of strings in the same way as jumping jacks. Sometimes, a single element is manipulated (phallus, head or jaw), as in the case of a Bambara mask, in the shape of a hornbill head, which is held by a rod whilst the lower part of the beak is manipulated using a string.
- Malkin, Michael R. Traditional and Folk Puppets of the World. South Brunswick (NJ): A.S. Barnes, 1977.