Seeing Inside: The Golden Age of Anatomical Flapbooks

July 06, 2015

Seeing Inside: The Golden Age of Anatomical Flapbooks

Today almost everyone has seen inside a real human body. We have access to an incredible array of visual resources: high-resolution photographs, x-rays, MRI scans, videos of surgical procedures, and even the cryogenic slices of the Visible Human Project. But throughout most of history there were only a few options - viewing bodies in real life, which was generally not very pleasant and sometimes illegal; as expensive hand-made models; and as illustrations. Among the most interesting of anatomical texts from this period are flapbooks. Rather than depicting the body statically as in most book illustrations, they are an attempt to create a deeper understanding of organ systems as they relate to each other in three dimensions, with the viewer an active participant who "dissects" the body by opening the flaps.

The beautiful flapbook which just arrived in our shop, Anatomie de la Femme, was published around 1900 in Paris by Vigot Frères, a firm that specialised in medical books and also published a corresponding male anatomy. Although flapbooks had appeared as early as the 1500s, their golden age was in the late 19th and early-20th centuries. New printing technologies made it easier and less expensive for publishers to produce detailed colour illustrations. Suddenly, texts that had been accessible only to specialists were being printed in vibrant chromolithographs for the mass market, and a variety of attractive flapbooks made their appearance.

These were delicate and ephemeral publications, often heavily used as educational tools. Few survived intact to the present day, and examples in such lovely and fresh condition as this one are distinctly uncommon. A global library search yields only two copies of this edition in France, at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de santé, and one at UC San Francisco. 

The figure in Anatomie de la Femme is composed of three large, double-sided flaps and a very complex series of smaller flaps. It encompasses the complete female anatomy, from the outer body to the internal organs, circulatory system, musculature, skeleton, nervous system, and reproductive organs (both with and without a fetus), and each part numbered to be identified by the key provided. In the images below I go through the body from first to last (though I don't open all the complicated internal organs). Have a good look - the illustrations are wonderful, and I really like the expression on the face of the last figure, which seems to be taking its state as a disembodied brain and nervous system very seriously.