Small Talk Tag: Doll

Stitches of the Past

Black dolls

For some toys it can be somewhat easy to uncover their history. Consulting old catalogs, collector books, company histories, and even personal anecdotes from their owners help historians like us at T/m to tell the story of a special toy. For some toys, however, their past is harder to uncover because they were not mass produced and may have been “loved to death.”

An exhibit at the Mingei International Museum explores the storied past of some of America’s most fascinating and mysterious playthings: black dolls. The exhibit showcases over 100 unique handmade African American dolls from the collection of Deborah Neff. The dolls represent a rich handcrafting tradition spanning from 1860 to 1930. Some dolls in the exhibit are also paired with an antique photograph depicting them with their young owners. The dolls on display depict a variety of emotions and give viewers a rare glimpse into the lives of their creators and owners.
Photo: Courtesy Mingei International Museum.

I’m So Fancy

Victorian Fancies

We’ve got to hand it to the Victorians: they were recycling and reusing a century before the country had heard of Al Gore or Earth Day! Everyday objects like wishbones, spools and nut shells were all given a new life as fanciful, yet functional art objects. All the rage in the 19th century, this crafty trend of turning trash into tiny treasures resulted in Victorian fancies.

While T/m’s  Victorian fancy doll isn’t exactly winning the beauty contest amongst the dolls in our collection, she certainly gets high marks for functionality and being “green.” Her body consists of a wishbone wrapped in muslin and plaid fabric scraps; and her head is painted cork. Her dress is actually intended to be used as a pen wipe, a desktop necessity in the days of the dip or nib ink pens. The tag pinned to her reads, “Once I was a wishbone, And grew upon a hen. Now I am a ‘Spinster,’ Made to wipe your pen.”

Papier Mâché Child’s Play

Papier Mache Doll

Izannah Walker wasn’t the only 19th century doll maker experimenting with new materials to create lighter, more durable dolls. In Europe, German manufacturers experimented with an abundance of inexpensive leftover materials. Local bookmaking factories made paper pulp an accessible alternative for doll manufacturing. The pulp was recycled and evenly pressed into greased molds to create a papier mâché doll.

With this papier mâché method, German doll makers could create intricately detailed, fashionable hairstyles like the one this doll from T/m’s collection is modeling. Molds were used for many years after their creation, even if the hairstyle went out of fashion. Today, we can actually study a doll’s hairstyle and determine when its mold was created.

Little Doll on the Prairie

presbyterian rag doll

While dolls come in many different shapes and sizes, some of the oldest dolls are made of fabric or rags. Cuddly and comforting rag dolls were easily and cheaply made with scraps out of the family sewing basket. Even Laura Ingalls Wilder carried her rag doll Charlotte on her family’s adventures across the American West.

When the women of the First Presbyterian Church of Bucyrus, Ohio decided to start a church fundraising campaign in the 1880s, they turned to rag dolls. The women began making and selling what are now known as Presbyterian rag dolls. These dolls had muslin bodies and beautiful hand-painted faces and each wore an ankle-length dress and bonnet. Generations of church women made these dolls through World War I and again from the 1950s to the 1980s. Luckily, some of the original rag dolls have survived the years by being passed down through the generations. Try your hand at making your own rag doll to create a lovable family heirloom!

Match Box Dolls Make a Comeback

match box dolls

What happens when you mix a Beanie Baby and a Polly Pocket? Well, you might end up with a match box doll!  Popular in the 1970s, these bean-filled dolls are small enough to fit inside of a match box, which doubles as the doll’s bed. Though they didn’t gain much popularity in North America, match box dolls were all the rage in other countries around the world as an inexpensive alternative to the popular toys offered in the United States at the time.

Today, match box dolls are making a comeback in North and South America. After being unable to find a doll similar to the ones she played with growing up in Cyprus and Greece, entrepreneur and mother of three Elizabeth Cross created Stork Babies. Each of these modern match box dolls come with a personality all their own: a Spanish gal named Carisa, for example, encourages everyone to “enjoy the world and all the beautiful things it has to offer, especially ice cream!” Cross’s daughters (ages 6, 10 and 11) act as the company’s Vice Presidents of Design, insuring that the dolls are on-trend and of course maintain maximum cuteness.

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