Small Talk Tag: Izannah Walker

Making A Doll That Looks Just Like You

izannah walker doll

It is believed that from 1845 to 1886 Izannah Walker—and her team of three sisters—produced close to 3,000 dolls. Although Walker’s career happened concurrently with the Industrial Revolution, each of the dolls was hand-painted to have a distinct look and face rather than the ceramic or bisque dolls that were currently being mass-produced. In a male-dominated doll making industry, Walker became the first American woman to receive a doll making patent with her process for making a soft cloth doll that did not break when dropped. Here’s how she pulled it all off:

First, the doll’s head and shoulders were formed by applying glue to layers of inexpensive cloth and batting. The fabric was then pressed into a mold to harden. A rod would be inserted into the center of the form to provide strength from the head to torso. Ears were formed out of fabric tubes attached to the head. After applying another layer of paste and waiting for the doll to dry, Walker would paint the doll’s head. Next, the doll’s torso and limbs were sewn and stuffed. Walker preferred to sew joints at the doll’s elbows and knees—she even attached thumbs and sewed fingers! She would then paint the limbs with the same color used on the head. All that was left was to attach a second covering to the doll’s body in order to conceal the elbow and knee joints and provide a neatly finished doll, each as unique as the child that owned her.

She Looks Just Like You

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What little girl wouldn’t want a doll made to look just like her? American Girl Dolls can be customized to match their owner’s hair, eyes, skin tone, and even hobby (gymnastics anyone?!). While ordering dolls online may be a 21st century idea, custom-made dolls are a trend straight out of the Victorian Era.

19th century doll artist Izannah Walker began creating hand-painted cloth dolls in the 1840s. By 1873, she patented her process for doll construction, which covered molded fabric with paste. Walker’s dolls were an unbreakable counterpart to the popular china or bisque dolls of the time period. As you can imagine, these dolls were often well loved, so many of them haven’t survived. We’re lucky to not only have Miss Mary in our collection, but also a photograph of her and Mary Estelle Newell, the doll’s original owner—and in matching outfits no less!