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Collectible Dolls Tell a Cultural History


Is it any wonder that many adults collect dolls? “They tell us a lot about the period when they were created,” says Linda Eaton, director of collections and senior curator of textiles at Winterthur Museum, as she opens up boxes of dolls from the museum’s collection, swaddled in soft tissue paper. 

Hairstyles are a giveaway, she says. Materials used to construct the dolls are another. Fabric patterns and other art or ornamental elements yield more clues. In fact, the staff and the grad students who come here to study could be considered a cultural detective agency. 

Eaton’s first box yields two examples of Old Lady in the Shoe dolls. In another box, there are small, wooden peg dolls with joints circa early 1800s, an early 20th-century Bruckner Topsy Turvy (with a black face on one side that can be flipped to show a white face on the other), and a 19th-century redware doll. There’s also a pair of “him and her” scale-model miniature dolls, mostly likely from the early 1900s, with working parts hidden beneath their clothing. 

Dolls are perhaps the oldest type of toy, showing up in Egyptian tombs over 40 centuries ago. They’ve been made of almost every material imaginable, generally whatever was readily available—bone, wax, clay, wood, leather, even stone. In addition to being played with as toys, the adults who’ve made these “mini-me’s” through history have also wanted to make them small replicas of themselves to teach (about motherhood, hygiene, medicine), to use as models (clothing, home interiors), to display solely as collectibles or—more forebodingly—as effigies to maim in hopes of casting spells and unspeakable pain. 

While initially, dolls were made as one-offs, Eaton says commercial versions were mass-produced for sale by hand even before the Industrial Revolution. Antique dolls that are affordable enough today for relative beginners to collect mainly come from the 19th century or the earlier part of the 20th. In fact, many collections started as family heirlooms passed down from parent to child. “Germany was well known for its dolls, many of which were sold in the United States,” Eaton says. 

Many of these were “china” or porcelain figures that were mass-produced during the 19th century, their hardened faces softened by the clothing. Often, the main body or trunk of dolls of this era had only cloth or other stuffing, and the clothing was not always removable, with only the face and limbs looking realistic. In the early days, most dolls were made to resemble grownups. Dolls that were made to resemble life-sized babies appeared mainly late in the 1800s and often were intended to appeal to the presumed mothering instinct of young girls. 

There were also dolls made to reflect various cultures, including the highly collectable Navajo and Hopi Kachina dolls of the Southwest and the cornhusk dolls of other Native Americans. Rag dolls were often toys for black children in slave families. In more recent times, we’ve become enamored with dolls from foreign cultures—like Russian nesting dolls. 

With the turning of the 20th century came paper dolls, with cut-out clothing to be fitted onto them. Action figures, whether warriors on horses or Flip Doll 1soldiers with guns, were meant to appeal as gender-appropriate dolls for young boys—the future warriors. In the early 1900s, Americans were fascinated with everything miniature and made to scale, including doll houses, doll furniture and the dolls themselves. Style-conscious versions like Barbie came into vogue during the second half of the century. While these are not yet antiques, many people have collected them to pass down through generations—until a time a few decades hence, when they will become antiques. 

The size of the doll—regardless of its historic pedigree—is one factor in determining its worth. “For many years, the largest example of an antique doll would bring the highest price, and in many cases it still does,” says Fritzi Martinez, president of the National Antique Doll Dealers Association. “But as collectors add more dolls to their collections, many have had to switch to smaller examples in order to fit them onto crowded shelves.” 

Eaton says the main enemies of doll collectors are “light, dust and dirt.” Those who want to display their collections should do so in cabinets away from sunlight. She also says that curators at Winterthur do not disassemble dolls to find out more about them. Surface clues are enough.