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A peep show or peepshow is an exhibition of pictures, objects or people viewed through a small hole or magnifying glass. Though historically a peep show was a form of entertainment provided by wandering showmen, nowadays it more commonly refers to a presentation of a sex show or pornographic film which is viewed through a viewing slot.
Peep shows, also known as peep box or raree show ("rarity show") can be traced back to early modern times (15th century in Europe, by Leon Battista Alberti) and are known in various cultures. A type known as the perspective box is found in 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painting, where the emphasis was on creating an illusion of three dimensionality by manipulating the perspective of the view seen inside, usually the interior of a room. A peep show could be a wooden box with a hole or several holes, containing a set of pictures which the show-man could set into a viewing position by pulling a corresponding string. The boxes were often decorated inside to resemble theatrical scenes. The show was accompanied by spoken recitation that explained or dramatized what was happening inside.
19th-century Chinese peep shows were known by many names including la yang p'ien ("pulling foreign picture cards"). Sometimes the showman would perform for a crowd with puppets or pictures outside the box and then charge people extra to look through the holes. In Ottoman Syria a form of peep show called sanduk al-ajayib ("wonder box") existed, which the storyteller carried on his back. The box had six holes through which people could see scenes backlit by a central candle. Sanduk al-ajayib stories were about contemporary figures and events, or showed scenes of heaven and hell. Other common subjects in peep shows throughout the world have been exotic views and animals, scenes of classical drama or masques, court ceremonies, surprise transformations (e.g., of an angel into a devil) and of course, lewd pictures.
Raree shows were precursors of toy theatres, with movable scenes and paper figurines, popular in the 19th century.
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