Bodies in Paper: Popular Health Manuals and the Representation of Anatomy, 1890–1930

Bodies in Paper: Popular Health Manuals and the Representation of Anatomy, 1890–1930

Starting in the last decade of the nineteenth century, paper models of the human body became a common consumer object affordable even to better-off working-class families. Books like F. E. Bilz’s Das neue Natur-Heilverfahren or Anna Fischer-Dückelmann’s Die Frau als Hausärztin, which were also published in English, included elaborate colored paper models offering detailed anatomical knowledge. These models presented body parts or the entire male or female body and consisted of a printed paper base to which several layers of paper flaps were attached. By lifting these various flaps—some twenty in the case of Bilz, for example—readers could learn about the appearance, size, and position of the organs of the human body. Flaps were marked with little numbers (sometimes up to 300) connecting the model to an index.

The models formed part of a rising tide of popular images offering scientific knowledge to lay audiences. But while research on hygiene exhibitions and educational films, for example, has been expanding rapidly over the last decade, the paper models have received little historiographical attention, despite the fact that they were extremely popular. The health manuals that included the models sold hundreds of thousands, even millions of copies—and the models could also be bought separately.

In my project, I present a close reading of these models. I map their appearance and evolution, look at paratexts and advertisements, and interpret the models as part of a historically specific, vibrant visual universe of body images. More specifically, I look at the usage encouraged by these models: as fragile paper objects included in household companions explicitly addressed to women, they asked for a careful, close examination by an individual, ideally female, reader that was to take place within the private sphere. I also explore how the body was represented by the models, pointing out that it was imagined as both readable and malleable. I pay special attention to the ways in which sex differences and pregnancy were represented in the paper models.