The Lovely & Disturbing: The History Of Wax Dolls

In The Beginning…

Dolls, the playthings we know today, began their lives as something quite different. Called poppets or puppets originally, they were created as educational tools and for use in religious ceremonies.

wax-roman-masksAs icons, creche figures, totems, effigies, votive artifacts, offerings, masks, and other stand-ins for human figures, they were ritualistically used. Those poppets lucky enough to have survived the ceremonies were often given to children as playthings. Certainly children delighted to have them — for just as use of poppets in religious ceremonies began to wane, dolls started to become the playthings we know today.

These early poppets were like their earlier votive artifact incarnations in two ways.

1910 French P. Imans Full-Size Wax Mannequin Bust DollOne: The form they took. Like the ceremonial poppets, these early dolls were in adult rather than child form. Kid leather bodies were preferred over cloth ones because the leather was much better at forcing the stuffed poppet bodies into the shapely figure of a corseted woman. Something the fashion industry quickly latched onto, using poppets to sell the fashions of the day (until print advertising became a more economical option, anyway). This is at least partly why dolls made prior to the 1850s are not baby dolls.

Two: What they were made from. Wax had widely used in modeling to make the religious effigies and votive artifacts, dating back to 14th century. As dolls grew in popularity, it was only a matter of time before those skilled wax model makers began to see how production of dolls would expand their markets — and income.

Once people could see the beauty of these wax dolls up close, they became quite popular. By the end of the 18th century, wax dolls (wax heads attached to cloth doll bodies by sew-holes on the shoulder plate) were being produced in England, France, and Germany.

Waxing Nostalgic Over Wax Dolls

Wax may not seem to be a great material for making dolls, especially for children. But it makes sense when you compare wax to the other materials available at the time.

Prior to the manufacture of wax dolls, the dolls children had were either ceremonial cast-offs or handmade dolls of wood or cloth. Sometimes the kids themselves made crude little dolls from sticks and the odds and ends adults had cast off as garbage. Remember, there was no plastic or even composition at this time. And wax doll heads didn’t shatter when dropped, like china, bisque, or porcelain dolls.

But the true beauty of wax dolls lies in, well, the wax itself!

For many of us today, all we see are the old, aged, discolored, and cracked wax dolls. But when wax dolls are new, they are incredibly lifelike. Wax can be tinted with beautiful, realistic skin tones. The facial features, like cheeks and mouths, can be enhanced with paint. And when dusted with a fine pumice to remove the shine, the whole surface looks like translucent human skin. Those dolls must have seemed like magic!

Three Basic Types Of Wax Dolls

Antique wax dolls are categorized by the way they were made.

poured-montanari-wax-doll1) Poured Wax Dolls Poured wax dolls, sometimes called “thick wax” or “solid wax” dolls are made by pouring a molten wax blend of bleached beeswax, coloring, other additives into a heated plaster mold, resulting in a entirely wax head.

The eyes were cut open and blown or moulded glass eyes were inserted; a small amount of hot wax was used to fix the eyes in place. The hair is either mohair or human hair, quite often inserted a few strands at a time.

Usually poured wax dolls also have poured wax arms and legs, which were also sewn onto the body.

The majority of these poured wax dolls were made in England. These were the first wax dolls; and the most expensive.

wax over composition doll violet2) Wax Over Dolls These less-expensive, later, dolls were made by dipping heads made of papier mache (and even later, composition) into melted wax. This overlay of wax allowed for tinting and a more lifelike appearance than a standard papier mache head. Manufacturers experimented with single and multiple layers of wax, although the final thickness was normally no more than 3 millimeters thick.

The majority of these wax over dolls were made in Germany and France, however, the English made some wax over dolls as well. One English version is the egg-shaped or slit-head wax dolls. These wax dolls are so named for the middle incision where the doll’s hair was inserted. (This hair, usually human, was then parted and drawn to each side.) These early wax dolls usually had dark eyes, without pupils.

While these wax over dolls were much less expensive than their poured wax counterparts, wax over dolls came in many different styles.

Many of the wax over dolls have mohair wigs, but some dolls had molded bonnets and hairstyles, such as the “Pumpkin-Head” or “Squash-Head” dolls with molded hair arranged in a pompadour style and the Alice hairstyle with headband.

Wax over dolls also had variations in their glass eyes: Either fixed or sleep eyes. Yes, as early as 1825, there were sleep eyed dolls! Often called wire-eyed wax dolls, the eyes were worked by a wire (or string) which came out at the side of the doll’s waist. French versions of these dolls usually have paperweight eyes, while the German dolls have spun glass eyes which are flatter in appearance.

There were also multi-faced wax over dolls. A single head was molded with two or three faces; you turned the head around to change the doll’s face.

Body types can vary widely, including almost any number of combinations of cloth, wooden, leather, composition, or wax over limbs attached to cloth stuffed bodies. Some dolls had the Motschmann floating-joint body.

Some of these early wax over dolls even had the ability to cry by pulling a string!

reinforced-wax-doll3) Reinforced Wax Dolls Reinforced dolls are later dolls which are rather a combination of the other two types of wax dolls. First, a wax doll head was poured — and then the inside was reinforced by using either plaster or strips of cloth soaked in composition. This provided a stronger support layer to the wax.

While most of the reinforced wax dolls have closed mouths, like the other wax dolls, there are examples of reinforced wax dolls having open mouths. This is likely one of the benefits of the supportive reinforcement material. A few of these open-mouthed reinforced wax dolls even had wooden teeth.

Most reinforced wax dolls have wigs made of mohair or human hair, but some of them have inserted hair. Like the other wax dolls, they too have glass eyes.

Reinforced wax dolls had a variety of body types; the most common being a cotton or muslin body, with either composition or wax arms and legs. These dolls were primarily made in Germany.

The Wax Doll Sensation

Most wax dolls are without maker marks. (There were some later wax dolls do have stamps on the torso to identify the maker; but this is rare.) However, we do know of one of the most famous names in wax dolls: Madame Montanari.

montanari-wax-dollMadame Augusta Montanari may be the best known wax doll-maker of all time, but not much is known about her or her wax sculpture studio. We do know that she and her poured wax works first attracted attention at London’s Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851. There she and her winning exhibit of dolls created a sensation that led to imitation, the sincerest form of flattery.

Montanari’s dolls were beautiful. Each strand of human hair on the doll’s head was set directly into the wax with a hot needle and then an iron roller was used to gently but firmly roll over the head. This secured the strands of hair so well that the doll’s hair could be combed without causing any damage or loss.

Her exhibit included male and female dolls — and what is said to be the first baby doll! Many also credit Montanari with creating the first character dolls as each doll was dressed for age and occasion, like an actual person. Eventually, Montanari would create wax dolls for royalty and other wealthy persons, including wax dolls representing some of Queen Victoria’s children. These are called the Royal Wax Baby Dolls.

Very few dolls survive with proof of being made by Montanari, Occasionally, one is found with what is believe to be the Montanari signature on the cloth body. But good indications of an authentic Montanari wax doll are the well-defined fingers, chubby arms of wax (or later, composition), and a more natural-looking down-turned mouth.

Historians are not exactly sure when Montanari passed away. We know she left the studio to her son, who had worked with her making the dolls; but by 1890, the studio seems to have closed. By that time, composition and bisque dolls were so inexpensive that was dolls were on their way out. Montanari’s death seems to also mark the passing of wax dolls.

Spook-Tacular Antique Wax Dolls

It’s October, and with Halloween just around the corner it wouldn’t be right not to mention a few spook-tacular or creepy wax dolls.

As mentioned earlier, one of the earliest uses of poppets was for educational purposes. Among these were the medical dolls, like the ancient Chinese medical dolls. Since the doctors were not allowed to view or touch their modest female patients, the women were given a stick which they used to point at a small, usually ivory, medicine doll to show the doctor where they were hurt. But since we’re talking about wax dolls…

antique-human-anatomical-modelIn the late 17th century, wax modeler Gaetano Giulio Zumbo and surgeon Guillaume Desnoues, collaborated to solve a problem. At this time, there were few bodies available for dissection, and little way to preserve them — which made it difficult to properly educate medical students. However, by using wax modeling techniques it became possible to highlight specific bodily features and structures, painting and marking them, thereby making it easier to isolate and identify them and their functions. And, of course, these wax anatomical models did not decompose (or smell!). They could be stored and used again and again. That made these incredibly detailed wax anatomical models increase in popularity throughout Europe in the 18th century.

Creating these wax medical models was highly labour-intensive: Plaster casts of dissected anatomical specimens were used to produce wax copies. Structures and vessels were painted (others imitated using thread) and then varnished to protect them. The finished pieces were then assembled to provide the illusion of living tissue. Many of these wax anatomical models were so beautiful that they were also sought by museums and private collectors.

Anna Morandi Manzolini, wax sculpture created by the scientist-artist herselfLike Augusta Montanari, there was a female wax sculpture artist at the forefront of these wax pieces. Her name was Anna Morandi Manzolini. She was an anatomical wax modeler during the Italian Enlightenment. During her lifetime (1714–74), she was celebrated for her exacting sculptures of human organs and systems. Crowds of physicians, medical students, and the curious would gather in her home to watch her anatomical demonstrations. Recently, there was a book written about her, entitled The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini.

While these wax anatomical models were about doctors trying to save lives, there was another type of wax doll all about death.

Some of you may have heard of the many Victorian mourning practices, or mourning memori, such as postmortem photography and mourning hair art. These may seem morbid, but they were deeply valued traditions involving keepsakes to remember lost loved ones by. Another common practice in mourning at the turn of that last century was that of the effigy or burial doll.

grave-doll-wax-effigy-1860-with-bookWhen a child had passed away, it was traditional for families who could afford it to have a life-size wax effigy of the child made for the funeral. The wax doll would be dressed in the infant or child’s own clothing. Most often the deceased child’s own hair would be used to make the doll even more realistic. These wax dolls usually show the deceased in repose, eyes closed, as if sleeping. The backsides of the heads were made flat so that the doll would lay nicely when laid out to rest.

The effigy doll would be put on display at the wake. Often the doll would then be left by the grave-site. But we do know, from the effigy dolls which still exist today, that in some cases these wax effigy dolls were kept.

Wax effigies of infants would be placed in a crib, their clothes would be changed, and otherwise treated like a real baby. The bodies of these wax dolls would be cloth, weighted with sand to give it a more realistic feel when being held. Other times, the effigy itself would be framed. For older children, just the head and shoulders were created in wax effigy, also with the flat backsides, so that they could be placed in a picture frame. They were the ultimate way to attempt to reject the finality of death of a loved little one.

This practice of effigy dates back even further than the Victorians, to Roman times. But other than effigies made in marble or stone, none are left. In fact, these Victorian burial dolls and effigies themselves are extremely rare.

Some people consider these wax effigy grave dolls and the wax anatomical models to be creepy, if not disturbing. Some consider them history objects; others folk art. Still others think they are rare and valuable works of art.

Image Credits (In Order They Appear): Antique Roman wax masks; French P. Imans Full-Size Wax Mannequin Bust Doll; poured wax doll by Montanari; Wax over composition doll named ‘Violet’; antique reinforced wax doll; Montanari wax doll from Debra’s Dolls via Victoriana Magazine; antique Human Anatomical Model; wax sculpture of Anna Morandi Manzolini, created by the scientist-artist herself; wax effigy child doll.

Doll Prehistory

Dolls have been around nearly as long as humans have been on this earth. Small human-shaped figurines carved of mammoth ivory dating back to 28,000 and 35,000 years ago were found in Germany. And many believe dolls go back even further in our prehistory too; but, as these even older dolls were likely made of wood and fur, they have long since decayed and therefore no longer exist to be found.

antique-egyption-rag-dollSince those very early days of doll-kind, other ancient dolls have been discovered made of wood, clay, ivory, marble, stone, bone, leather, cloth, wax, and even papyrus. Not all early dolls were overly simple pieces either. In fact, jointed dolls of clay existed in ancient Egypt, and a fragment of an alabaster doll with movable arms was found in ancient Babylon. That means articulated dolls date back to thousands of years before the birth of Jesus Christ and the start of our current, Gregorian, calendar system!

While we see dolls with movable limbs as having been created to delight children, many archaeologists say that such jointed dolls were charms, created simply to make noise — noise designed to keep bad things away. Truth be told, there is a lot of debate among professionals as to whether these early prehistoric and ancient dolls were first and primarily made for religious reasons, or if they were the playthings of children.

In ancient Egypt, for example, there are many dolls found. Dolls were so popular, that there’s archaeological evidence of an ancient Egyptian doll factory!

paddledollAmong the oldest, dating to 3000–2000 BC, are the flat wooden dolls with strands of hair made of sun-baked clay strung on flax thread. These ancient Egyptian dolls seem to emphasize the female form, especially the hips. The wide hips of these dolls have earned them the name “paddle dolls”. The more exaggerated female shape of these “paddle dolls” leads the experts to believe they are fertility dolls, much like the Venus of Willendorf, and not toys.

While we can thank the Egyptians and their elaborate burial rituals for preserving so many of these ancient dolls, the very fact that dolls were included in burial chambers and tombs has lead many to believe that dolls had more to do with religious ideas of death and afterlife than with the life of a child. However, since a number of dolls have survived simply due to the arid environment deftly preserving them, we have other evidence of dolls in Egypt.

When it comes ancient Egyptian dolls, clay dolls seem to have been the most common. For living along the Nile meant everyone had access to the two basic ingredients in sun-baked clay dolls: clay and the sun. Therefore, as strange as it may seem to us, wooden dolls and rag dolls made of cloth (often stuffed with papyrus as well as textile scraps) were more costly than clay and not so available for everyone. But while those dolls may have been more expensive (and, by today’s thinking, more coveted), clay dolls seem to have been very popular among children. No matter what level of society they lived in. That’s probably because the children themselves could make and “bake” their very own clay doll designs. Not unlike what many children do today with modeling clay.

When and how dolls truly became the playthings of childhood is very open to debate. In some cultures, old and new, dolls are made for use in religious ceremonies; however, once the ceremony is over, the ceremonial dolls are “retired” and given to children as playthings.

In ancient Greece and Rome, the lines between dolls for religious ritual and childhood pastime appear to have a very different trek — and an exceptionally poignant connection.

bone-doll-with-articulated-limbsDating back to at least 200 BC, many dolls in Greece and Rome had jointed limbs that moved, and some even had removeable clothing too. Then, as now, doll clothing was as fashionable and up-to-date as what young ladies and women of the day were wearing. (It’s difficult to imagine that such clothing would be purely for religious reasons.) We know this from the number of young girls buried with dolls. Most dolls found in the tombs of children were very simple creations made of terracotta, rags, wood, or bone. However, some of the more unique dolls, designed to look as lifelike as possible, were made of ivory or wax.

There also are the stories and images from ancient Greece which depict little girls playing with dolls. And, in fact, the ancient Greek word “kore”, which literally means “little girl”, was also applied to dolls. This takes on an even more powerful meaning when a young Greco-Roman girl came of age.

As a Greco-Roman girl approached marital age, she would dedicate her doll to a goddess. This doll dedication was a gift presentation given to the goddess in hopes of receiving the blessing of fertility during marriage. When she became a woman, she would literally put away her childish things!

While the archaeological record may seem confusing in terms of the true origins and purpose of dolls in human history, it is not difficult to imagine that children would be fascinated by miniature versions of people. No matter what the original purpose of dolls, children would want to play with them.

Image Credits (in order of appearance): Egyptian rag doll, paddle doll, and ancient Grecian bone doll with articulated limbs.

Dolls Connect Generations: 11 Tips For Taking Care Of Your Collectible Dolls

I Bet There Were A Lot Of Handmedown Dolls In This Family!
I Bet There Were A Lot Of Handmedown Dolls In This Family!

Unlike other toys which may come and go in popularity, dolls continue to connect generations.

Little girls have long played with dolls, emulating their mothers. Meanwhile, little boys played with model railroad sets. (Well, sometimes little boys watched Dad play with the model railroad; the boys themselves waiting until they were old enough to be allowed to play too!) But as less railroads criss-cross the country now, as technology advances creating remote control cars and new-fangled gadgets to play with, the generational connections once made via model trains and even other transportation toys has nearly faded into the past. Of course, parenting and caring for babies and children hasn’t become a thing of the past; so dolls remain popular and continue to connect generations.

It’s this continued shared love of dolls which keeps dolls at the top of “most popular” lists for antiques and collectibles year after year!

However, if you want your doll to survive so that it can be handed down to the next and even future generations, you’ll want to take precautions to preserve it.

Caring For Your Dolls

 You know those TV commercials for dental whitening products that say, “If you aren’t whitening, you’re yellowing”? Well, dolls can be seen in the same way. The deteriorating effects of aging are breaking them down, and, if you aren’t preserving, you’re just letting the damage happen — maybe even compounding the problems.

While you can’t stop the aging (of yourself or the dolls!), you can slow it down with these eleven tips for doll care.

1) Protect your dolls from light. Sunlight, especially direct sunlight, is the worst; but florescent and incandescent lighting is also damaging. Not only will bright light fade the colors of most textiles, but it can also fade and damage various doll materials, including the vinyl and other plastics. Direct and/or bright lighting can also create a lot of heat, which can also cause a lot of problems for dolls. Use lighting and/or glass with ultra-violet filters for the best protection.

2) Protect your dolls from dust, smoke, pests, pets, and other environmental contaminants. Display your dolls in a glass cabinet (with proper lighting, that can be turned off when it’s not necessary) whenever possible. Glass shelves are non-reactive and therefore are safe for displaying dolls and their costumes.

3) Safely position dolls. Crowding dolls is dangerous. Not only does reaching for one risk knocking another over — or worse yet, a domino effect! — but you risk snags, scratches, and other damages. Crowding can also result in damage your doll outfits by crushing the textile fibers. Sleep dolls, dolls with inset eyes, and bisque dolls with eyes that move must be stored face down or displayed upright. The eye mechanisms are heavy, and if the doll is laid on its back, gravity will pull the eyes back into the doll’s head and/or break the mechanism itself. Beware doll stands. While your doll may look more presentable on a stand, the stress of her own weight against the stand can cause damage to the doll. Also, the metal of the doll stand itself may react with the doll or the doll’s costume, causing staining and tears. Support the bisque heads of dolls, even when they are sitting, as vibrations from general house activities may cause the heads to topple off the doll and break.

4) Beware of acids. Dolls should not be kept in their original boxes, as the acid in the cardboard and paper can actually damage the dolls and the costumes with a slow acid burning which appears as tanning. When storing dolls, remove the doll’s clothing or place acid-free tissue between the doll and her clothing. Unless you are using archival acid-free boxes, use more acid-free paper to protect the doll and clothing from the acid in cardboard boxes. The same is true of wooden surfaces, such as shelves, as the dangerous part of regular tissue, cardboard, or other paper is the acid from wood called lignin. A few layers of acid-free paper or unbleached muslin is enough of a barrier of protection. Dolls should not be stored wearing jewelry or clothing and shoes with metal buckles, etc., as the metal can create the dreaded “green spots” on vinyl dolls, rust on textiles, snag or scratch dolls and their outfits.

5) Pad cloth dolls and costumes. Use acid-free paper or unbleached muslin to support joints and other weak areas of cloth bodied dolls in storage. Parts of doll costumes, such as full sleeves and skirts, may need to be supported while in storage or on display too. Acid-free tissue paper will also help keep the garment’s shape while preventing textiles from creasing or touching, and accelerating damage.

6) Keep your dolls and their clothing clean. Even dolls in display cases can become dirty. Dust your doll collection regularly, and inspect the dolls for signs of pests or damages. For wigs, clothing, delicate trims, etc. you may use a vacuum with a nylon stocking over the hose to act as a screen which protects such light materials from the suction action.

7) Avoid water. Avoid washing your dolls, doll wigs, and clothing, as most dust and dirt becomes very acidic when mixed with water. Wooden, composition, and paper mache dolls should never be washed as water is their enemy. Caracul, mohair, wool, and wigs made of human hair do not like to be washed or wetted either. Regular dusting alleviates the need of washing.

8) Store dolls in safe places. If you have a large number of dolls, so many that you cannot display them all, beware storing them in attics, basements, closets along outside walls, and other places with temperature extremes or swings in temperatures. Similarly, humidity is a danger. Heat degrades composition and plastics (celluloid can even explode from heat!); excessive heat or too little humidity can cause dehydration of the fibers; and high heat and humidity can make the doll’s clothing bleed and stain the doll, her accessories, and other parts of her dress. Very cold temperatures can crack or craze composition and papier mache; too much humidity encourages the growth of mold, mildew, and fungus. Repeated swings and fast changes in these environmental changes exponentially hasten the damages. Thankfully, dolls do well in the same general temperatures and humidity levels we humans are comfortable with.

9) Avoid storing dolls in plastics, like rubber bins and plastic bags. These can trap in moisture, leading to mold and mildew. Plus, plastics give off gases that can damage dolls and and doll clothing alike. If you opt for plastic storage, puncture air holes to allow for circulation which allows the gasses to escape.

10) Beware the chemical reactions of mothballs. Mothballs and moth crystals contain chemical pesticides which can have bad reactions with vinyl, metal, and even feathers. If you must use mothballs or moth crystals to store dolls and fashions, be absolutely certain they do not come in contact with the dolls or textiles.

11) Don’t forget about your dolls. Think of display and storage as temporary situations. Remember to periodically take your dolls out from where they sit, dust them off, and inspect them for signs of pests or damages. Any dolls or items having — or which are suspected of having — insects or mold or fungus should be removed and isolated from the rest of the collection to avoid contaminating the rest of the collection. Regular inspection and repositioning of your dolls also gives your dolls, their clothing, and accessories time to breath, which helps avoids other decay issues.

Whether your dolls are in an old fragile state, freshly repaired, like-new, or brand new, these tips will ensure your dolls will live to connect to the next generation.

My Dad With Polly Dolly - Click The Photo For The Full Story
My Dad With Polly Dolly – Click The Photo For The Full Story

Happy New Year’s From Rose O’Neill & The Kewpies

A vintage Rose O'Neill holiday postcard featuring the Kewpies!

New Year’s Luck for You
At the mystic hour of midnight,
If your eyes are bright,
you’ll see the Jolly Kewpies
bringing New Year’s luck to you from me.

In February of last year, I wrote about Kewpie dolls for the Dolls By Diane newsletter; leave a comment or email me if you want me to send you a copy!

vintage kewpie new years eve postcard

The Halloween Tradition Of Romantic Tricks & Treats

Halloween was once steeped in the tradition of belief that the veil between this world and the next was thinnest at this time of year and so was considered a time when fortunes could be best told. Not even the Victorian era and it’s designs to clean-up the naked bonfire bawdiness could quash that Hallowe’en tradition. In fact, the Victorian notions of romance and marriage quite fed such things. Especially the romantic sort of fortune telling, predicting whom you might marry.

halloween-bewitching-vintage-postcardIncluded in this historical paper trail are the antique and vintage Halloween postcards. There, among the now-so-traditional Halloween fare of witches and black cats, are the romantic Halloween postcards. Sometimes these are simply postcards with romantic prose, courtship rituals, or even wistful, hopeful sentiments. But there too, along with icons or symbols of witchcraft (such as caldrons, clocks, mirrors, and potions), there are the utterly charm-ing old postcards of spell-casting or divination. These discuss the magical steps one might take to find love and bind lovers. Some are quite clearly the stuff of parlor games.

There were quite a number of fortune telling games. Some, like the postcards, provided instructions. Others were of the oral tradition. For example, among the myriad of seasonal apple traditions is the one in which single ladies peeled an entire apple and then tossed the long peel behind them. The shape the apple peeling took was said to form the first letter of the first name of their future mate.

Along with these sorts of party games, there were dolls who might help a single lady out.

In the 1800s, both France and Germany made wooden, and porcelain, dolls with skirts over paper petticoats, of sorts. It was on the paper pages of the skirting that one found one’s fortune. Much like a fancier version of the paper fortune telling games played in schools now!

German Porcelain Miniature Fortune-Telling Doll Wooden Tuck Comb Doll as Fortune-Telling Doll

This is an antique wooden Grödnertal fortune telling doll. (So-named for the Grödnertal region of Germany where the original peg wooden dolls were made.)

Grödnertal Wooden Doll as French Fortune Teller antique

antique witch fortune telling doll

antique french fortune telling doll

In French these fortune telling dolls are known as “bebe a bonne aventure” dolls.

They are often depicted as witches or gypsies, which is rather keeping in the Halloween tradition.

See also: Collecting New Age Items From Old Eras.

Image Credits: Antique fortune telling dolls via, via, via.

Sophie Gimbel Designs For Saks — And Dolls!

Because you know I obsess over things… Like Gimbels department stores

I was working on another set of doll articles for Diane’s Doll Hospital (this time on vintage walker dolls from the 1950s; sign up here to get the articles), when I stumbled into Sophie Gimbel.

Sophie began her fashion design work as a young girl making clothing for her dolls and grew into an adult who hired as a stylist for Saks. She was hired by none other than Adam Gimbel, whose grandfather was the founder Gimbels. (Kind of ironic, hey?) In 1929, at the age of 31, she was lead fashion designer and manager of the Salon Moderne of Saks Fifth Avenue; by 1931, she would marry Adam Gimbel. Her designs, originally sold under the “Sophie Gimbel” label were so fabulous, she became recognized as an innovator in New Look fashion. By the 1940s, the label was changed to “Sophie of Saks”, and, on September 29, 1947, Sophie would become the first American fashion designer to grace the cover of Time magazine. (Elsa Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer in the world to be on the cover of Time in 1934.) So by the time this news article I’m going to share was published, Sophie was firmly established as a leading force of mid-century American fashion.

sophie gimbel fashions saks 1950s

The article was in the Montreal Gazette, June 17, 1950, and was about a Sophie fashion show which had been held the day prior at Saks Fifth Avenue.  She had designed not only doll clothing for Wanda but a series of matching doll and children’s fashions!

The costumes, which were presented simultaneously on dolls and little girls, are available in children’s sizes three to six and seven to fourteen. They include a pink organdy party frock, a gray flannel jumper suit, a plaid cotton dress, and a blue reefer coat.

I suspect this Sophie’s Original’s For Saks doll outfit may be one of these ensembles, despite being sold as a set for composition dolls. (Wanda Walker and her doll companions were rather pudgy in the tummy in order to accomodate the walker mechanics.)

sophie originals doll outfit

vintage sophie originals doll clothes cloth label

Here’s an ad from Christmas 1950 promoting some other fashions made for the Wanda Walker doll (by Advance Doll & Toy Corporation and/or Walkalon; that’s a long story I’m covering in the doll articles!): “Organdy hat and dress in pink, yellow, or blue are designed by S.F.A.’s own Sophie!”

saxs fifth ave sophie fashions walker doll

This is quite possibly one of those Sophie’s Originals for Saks dresses mentioned in the ad, which was made for, and shown here on, a Wanda Walker doll.

vintage wanda walker doll wearing sophie saks fashions

vintage 1950s hard plastic walker coll with fashions by sophie

sophie originals tag for wanda walker doll clothes

Of course, Sophie continued to design high fashion for adult human females long after this (including creating the red coat and dress Lady Bird wore to LBJ’s 1965 inauguration); but it is more than fitting to include Sophie’s fashion costumes for dolls in her story. After all, Sophie Gimbel began her design work making clothing for her own dolls.

Additional Image Credits:

1950s photo of Sophie Gimbel with models via Patricksmercy.

Happy Birthday, There’s a Corpse in Your Cake!

See on Scoop.itAntiques & Vintage Collectibles

Last week I came across a photograph of an item that was, at one time, available for purchase on Etsy. A small, metal viewing coffin with the unnerving inscription, “Don’t talk so much.” From the v…

Deanna Dahlsad‘s insight:

About Frozen Charlottes & Charlie dolls.

See on nourishingdeath.wordpress.com

Polly Dolly (Or, Of Boys & Dolls)

I don’t write about dolls here much because I write about them for Diane’s Doll Hospital. In January, I wrote this piece for their newsletter; but since it was such a personal story, they graciously gave me permission to publish it here.

In 1972, the Ms. Foundation for Women produced Free to Be… You and Me, an illustrated book and record album set. Initiated by Marlo Thomas, the mission of the Free to Be… You and Me project was to provide healthy messages refuting and rejecting gender stereotypes while encouraging the positive and empowering post-1960s ideas of gender equality, individuality, comfort with one’s identity, and tolerance. Using her celebrity clout, Marlo Thomas got a number of her celebrity friends to create, write, and perform the modern day lessons to children in song and story form. No doubt the hope was that the parents and other adults in children’s lives were listening — and learning — too.

Just two years later, in March of 1974, ABC aired the Free to Be… You and Me television special. The TV special also had the celebrity cast of singers, performers, and narrators, known as Marlo Thomas and Friends. For the special, the LP tracks were often produced with animated cartoon visuals, designed to capture the attention of children who were used to being fed a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons. (By this time, Schoolhouse Rock! was already seeing great success with its educational animation work.) A number of the segments from this TV special were also reformatted for educational use in schools, including audio-visual materials such as filmstrips. As a result of this heavy media saturation, many adults today readily remember Free to Be… You and Me. In fact, the principles behind Free to Be… You and Me combined with the nostalgia continue to drive the foundation and push sales; the record has remained in print all this time (as well as put onto CD) and a newly remastered version of the television special was released on DVD in 2010.

Among the most memorable and iconic Free to Be… You and Me stories was William Wants A Doll, based upon Charlotte Zolotow’s children’s picture book William’s Doll (1972). The animated TV version of William Wants A Doll, performed by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas, was about a little boy who really, really wanted a doll. But William’s desire for a baby doll wasn’t encouraged.

william wants a doll

His friends told him not to be a “sissy”. His brother said not to be a “jerk”. His father tried to distract William with more manly toys, giving his son a basketball, a baseball glove, and other sports items as gifts. But none of this deterred William. In spite of all the mocking and manipulation, he still wanted a doll.

Eventually, William’s understanding grandmother gets William a doll! The boy is elated!

william and his doll

But William’s father is concerned by the gift, and it’s up to the grandmother to explain that it’s OK. After all, William just wants to love and care for a doll — and that’s how he will learn care for his own baby “as every good father should do”.

William’s lesson of boys and dolls was given over three decades ago. Since then, many studies have been done and many articles have been written. Over and over again they indicate that dolls are perfectly fine toys for boys. But still, the social pressure of “the boy code” persists so strongly that many people today remain shocked that little boys would like to play with dolls. Or that grown men would collect dolls. Thanks heavens for all the boys and men who ignored those people and just continued to love dolls!

[Break]

I was just 10 years old when William Wants A Doll hit television and I still remember it vividly. Not just for the whiny and grating (yet somehow infections) chorus of “A doll, a doll, William wants a doll”. (It is quite catchy!) Nor for the hoards of kids who sang it, matching the whiny and grating sound with mocking and contemptuous sneers. What made William Wants A Doll so memorable then was the shock I received seeing and hearing it — I was flabbergasted that it even existed.

How could the idea of a boy loving a doll even be “a thing” — let alone a thing so big that there had to be a counter-movement against it?

Now, you might say that I was a wise and accepting kid. Or that all kids are wise and accepting, at least until someone teaches them not to be. Or maybe you think I was just naive. …It is true that I didn’t have any brothers, so what did I know of male gender roles and doll troubles? But the truth is, I knew a little boy who had a doll — or, I should say, I knew of a little boy who’d had a doll growing up. That boy was now a man. And that man was my father.

This is my father, Dean, with his doll, Polly. Actually, to the family she is known as Polly Dolly.

deanwithpollydolly

Though Polly Dolly bears no marks for maker or origin, she is likely a German-made, soft-bodied, composition doll.

We aren’t sure exactly when Polly Dolly was made; but we do know that she was really born the day she was given to my dad and he christened her “Polly Dolly”. Not that my dad remembers that day. As far back as his memory goes, there’s always been a Polly Dolly. The best he can guess is that he was given the doll when he was about three years old. Since my father was born in 1942, that would be about 1945.

It was during those years that America, like most of the world, was involved in WWII. Even if you had a lot of money (and his family didn’t), toys were quite rare due to wartime rations. Now, as an adult, my father believes that Polly Dolly was a secondhand doll, likely given to his mother by a neighbor or family friend. Not that it mattered to the three year old boy. It was a toy — and it was his, all his!

At least for the next few years.

You see, my dad has a younger sister. Being three years his junior, her arrival was around the same time as Polly Dolly’s. That’s probably not a coincidence. More than likely, news that a baby was on the way was what motivated someone to give the doll away. Here was a little boy who needed to learn how to be gentle with a real baby coming into the house; some wise and generous person know a doll was in order!

Baby sister grew. And young Dean learned to share. First, he had to learn to share the bedroom he already shared with his grandmother. And then, he had to learn to share Polly Dolly too.

One day, when my dad was about seven or eight, his mother took his little sister on a walk down the block to the park — and his sister insisted upon taking Polly Dolly along. But when mother and daughter came back from the park, little Dean discovered that his sister had left Polly Dolly there!

Being that she was so little, it was up to Dean to go back to the park and get the doll. He was furious! This was more than just some annoying thing a big brother had to do to help his little sister; this was her mistake, and she should fix it. This was inexcusable! It was one thing to walk down the block to the park and let his pals see him running errands for his sister — but it was something else to be seen carrying a doll! Remember, this was 1949-1950, or so. Boys didn’t play with dolls. Teddy bears? Sure. But a doll for a guy was different. Heck, G.I. Joe hadn’t even been invented yet! (Not to mention, as my husband and all the other men in my life remind me all the time, G.I. Joe is an “action figure”, not a “doll”). Little seven or eight year old Dean did not want to be seen carrying a doll!

But — it was his beloved Polly Dolly; he had to go get her!

No one else was going to do it; it was up to him.

So young Dean waited as long as he possibly could before he went to rescue Polly Dolly. He figured the later it was, the less of his friends there would be at the park to see him fetch the doll. I obviously wasn’t there that night, but, as a parent myself now, I know the boyhood version of my father had to have a knot in his stomach waiting as he did, worrying with every passing minute whether Polly Dolly would be there… The longer he waited, the greater the risk that someone else could take her or break her… Was the potential embarrassment worth such a risk? What a gamble it all was!

I envision my father as a boy venturing out on Operation Rescue Polly Dolly… I picture him sticking to the lengthening shadows as much as possible to hide his face — his flushing, sweating, anxious face. I imagine his joy when he spots his doll, safe and sound, at the park… Perhaps some tears spring to his eyes; one part relief, another part shame at having risked, for the sake of his boyish pride, never seeing his friend again. I see him scooping Polly Dolly up and turning quickly to make that uncomfortable run home, still trying not to be spotted by any of his friends, as his emotions twist and turn into anger at his sister once again.  And how he ends up at home, winded and spent, just glad to be able to return Polly Dolly to her proper place in his bedroom.

So you see, even at 10 years old, I didn’t need William Wants A Doll to tell me that boys can love dolls. Nor today do I need a bunch of studies or articles to tell me how boys who play with dolls grow-up to become nurturing parents and caregivers. I’ve always had my dad to show me those things.

dean with polly dolly

[Break]

As you can see, Polly Dolly has seen better days. Or, as we learned in The Velveteen Rabbit, Polly Dolly has been made Real by someone who REALLY loves her. Like the Skin Horse in the book explained, “These things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” And we all understand.

Along with the damages to her pretty face and head, Polly Dolly also has some issues with her fingers and is completely missing her toes.

polly dolly vintage composition doll

back of polly dolly's head

composition doll's hand

momma crier doll hole

And there’s a hole punched through the fabric on her soft body, exposing that she once was a mama crier doll (though my father never recalls her having made any noise; the crier was likely damaged before he ever got her).

…OK, Polly Dolly may be a bit too Real. While I completely believe in what the Skin Horse says, that “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always,” dear old Polly Dolly is in need of some serious repairs — if only to make sure she will be able to survive to supervise the stories about her as they are told to future generations.

polly dolly face

 I’d like to thank Diane’s Doll Hospital, again, for allowing me to post this article here. February is the month of sweethearts for me; not only for Valentine’s Day, but my daddy was born in February. So I am happy to celebrate him — and Polly Dolly — this month!

PS If you collect dolls, or just love them, you really should subscribe to the free Dolls By Diane newsletter. *smile*

Load Up Your Vintage Sleighs

We’ve all seen those cute vintage Santa and reindeer sleigh sets…

vintage santa reindeer and sleigh

And we’ve all seen enough of the old sleighs at thrift shops to know that eventually, like Santa’s sleigh Christmas morning, whatever goodies were originally in the sleigh have left — even Santa and his reindeer have departed leaving an empty and forlorn sleigh, just shadow of its former useful and joyful self.

But Wanda’s archive of Christmas decorating inspires me to rescue and adopt these old empty sleighs and fill them with other collectibles. (I do have quite a number of those just sitting around!) Here she shows some vintage plastic dolls of other nations taking a ride around the world in Santa’s sleigh.

vintage dolls in sleigh

And here, retro kitschy poodles pile on in! I just love that!

poodles in sleigh

Adventures In Cute: Child Collectors

After reviewing her book, Hello, Cutie!: Adventures in Cute Culture, I had the chance to interview the collector and author, Pamela Klaffke. In her book, she mentions that her young daughter is also a collector. Since I’m a big fan of children who collect, I wanted to speak with Pamela specifically about her daughter’s collecting.

Hello again, Pamela. Let’s talk a little bit about your daughter and what she collects.

Her name is Emma, she is 11-and-a-half and is in sixth grade. She primarily collects Blythe and Dal dolls, anime figurines, Pokémon plush toys and game cards, plus stuffed animals in general.

When and at what age did she begin collecting?

She’s been collecting since she was a toddler — first with Care Bears, then My Little Pony, and big-eyed Lil Peepers plush toys. Her interest in each collection lasted about 2-3 years and she was really focused. She would usually just buy items for her collections, rather than just a bunch of random toys.

Did you have to encourage her to collect?

It’s not something we really discussed, but being a collector myself I certainly didn’t dissuade her, except maybe when the stuffies started to edge her out of her bed! We had to start keeping them in bins. But collecting has always interested her and come quite naturally.

As a parent and a collector, I feel that the act of collecting is a great thing for children. It helps with practical things such as handling money, negotiating, making decisions, etc. While regular shopping has some of these things, collecting is different and even better than just going to a toy store. Even without the vintage aspect of learning about history, there’s far more involved… It’s not as easy because there’s more to sift through, no catalog pages to circle, etc. A child learns to value imperfect things — while perhaps learning to take better care of the things she collects (because “older” can mean “more fragile”). And I do believe that the role of collector is rather like the role of artist. What things do you think your daughter has learned or gained from collecting?

She’s definitely learned how to save money for an item she wants — she saved for four months earlier this year to pay for a special, limited edition Blythe doll. She’s also learned how to research the best price for items online and can spot a good deal. Many of the things she collects have to be ordered from Asia, so she’s become pretty savvy at ferreting out the bargains. She also combs every nook and cranny of a thrift shop in search of a genuine 1970s vintage Kenner Blythe doll. She’s heard the stories of people finding them in unlikely places and hopes one day it will happen to her!

Here’s hoping Emma finds her big score!

If you or child collect dolls, toys, and other cute things, you’ll love Pamela’s book.

A Vintage Space Adventurer By Any Other Name…

Mr. Rock Space Adventurer from Another Planet.

Clearly this vintage action figure, which includes Ray Gun and Space Communicator, is a knock-off of Star Trek’s Spock. The pointy ears and slanted eyebrows give it away.

This vintage space age toy was made by Lincoln International, a New Zealand toy company. Fun Ho says that Lincoln International began in 1946, when Mr. Lincoln Laidlaw took over a Higgins and Clotworthy handbag frame company. (Lincoln Laidlaw is likely the son of Richard Laidlaw, the founder of Farmers Trading Company; and Lincoln also opened the Jon Jansen furniture shop.) By 1948, the first “Lincoln Toy” was made and the toy company went on to make and import many licensed — and unlicensed — toys, using the “Boy oh boy, a Lincoln Toy!” slogan. The toy company merged with or was bought-out in 1983 or 1984.

The toys made between the 1960’s and 1970’s are often considered the company’s “golden age” and the vintage space age theme toys by Lincoln remain quite popular with collectors today. Even though “Mr. Rock” is a knock-off, this vintage toy has great value — it’s so rare that, according to Mego Collector, one of these sold in 2007 for $5,556. More info available here.

Other vintage Lincoln toy info:

Lincoln may have used Wyn toy bodies for trucks and other vehicles.

Info on Lincoln and diecast Brentware aka Brentoys.

Collecting Little Tuppence and Posing Penny dolls.

Images from a 1967 or 1968 Lincoln International toy catalog.

Of Valentino, Mineralava Beauty Pageants & Pink Powder Puffs

As a feminist, I have a complicated, conflicted, relationship with beauty pageants. But this vintage booklet from the 1923 Mineralava Beauty Pageant fascinates me because of the man involved: Rudolph Valentino.

Not just some master of ceremonies, Valentino was both the star and the prize of this contest: “The Most Beautiful Woman In America May be the Leading Lady of Valentino’s Next Picture.”

When the silent film star walked out of his Famous Players-Lasky (FP-L) contract in 1923, the studio suspended him without pay and won an injunction that prevented him from working for another studio, leaving the decadent dandy desperate for money. In Rudolph Valentino & the Mineralava Tour of 1923, Edward Lorusso explains:

Desperate for money, Valentino and Rambova decided to create a dance act and tour the country for Mineralava Beauty Clay cosmetics. Starting in New York City’s Century Theatre at a benefit for the Actors Fund on a bill with Will Rogers and Jeanne Eagels, the couple caused a sensation and received 20 curtain calls. Valentino was stampeded by 300 fans as he left the theater. A Boston headline claimed “10,000 Girls Mob World’s Greatest Kisser.” The mobs became so predictable that Valentino and Rambova often escaped theaters over rooftops. The couple performed in 88 cities in the United States and Canada during a grueling 17-week tour. The hysteria followed them wherever they performed.

The dance tour garnered a tremendous amount of publicity and earned the couple a big weekly salary plus a percentage of the gate. They broke house records in several theaters. But while Valentino was mobbed by hordes of fans in every city, local newspaper coverage often sniped at his romantic movie image and professional dancing as being “unmanly.” Plus, Valentino was hawking beauty products that he claimed to use himself.

Following the example of dance idols Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, the Valentinos created exotic dances and sumptuous costumes to the accompaniment of their own traveling orchestra. They performed a number of dances, but the tango routines were the ones that always brought down the house.

The beauty contest (the Miss America contest started in 1921) was another publicity angle of the tour. Mineralava sponsored a contest in each of the tour’s 88 cities and Valentino “judged” all the contestants. Then all 88 beauties descended on New York City, where they were paraded up Fifth Avenue to the Madison Square Garden. A young David O. Selznick made a short film of the contest called Rudolph Valentino and His 88 American Beauties; the film survives and is a fascinating glimpse at a “natural” Rudolph Valentino as well as the beauty contest styles of the day. Selznick shows the terrifying hordes of people who mobbed the streets outside Madison Square Garden, hoping for a glimpse of Valentino. Inside the Garden, the 88 girls come out onto a stage that is surrounded by crowds. Each girl (most with bobbed hair and bee-stung lips) parades in a gown and sash proclaiming her city and carrying (for some unknown reason) a ribboned Bo-Peep staff.

More details on the tour here, including a list of the tour stops.

Along with being a great advertising piece, I find this vintage booklet to be a lovely little piece of women’s history, combining the power of the women as consumers with their status as prey for marketers. Along with the testimonials from “women in American Homes,” collectors of silent film will also enjoy all the celebrity endorsements from silent film stars such as Nazimova, Mae Murray, Marion Davies, and Marie Prevost.

Other items from this beauty pageant tour can be found too. Donna L. Hill, author of Rudolph Valentino The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs (who also runs Rudolph-Valentino.com, owns this original trophy from the Mineral Lava Beauty Contest in Baltimore. (The Baltimore contestant came in third overall in the national contest.)

Along with trophies, Mineralava gave out boudoir dolls of Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova to contest winners.

As fabulous as this pageant was for Valentino (it did get him a better contract — if also assisting in the “Pink Powder Puff” slur) and, one presumes, Scott’s Mineralava Beauty Clay, at the time, the story doesn’t really end well… Valentino’s life lasted just a few more years and Mineralava seems only a footnote in the life of Valentino.

Image Credits:
Images of the 1923 Mineralava Beauty Pageant booklet, measuring 5 1/2 by 8 inches, via Grapefruit Moon Gallery.

Photo of the Mineralava trophy belongs to Donna L. Hill; found via Cinema OCD.

Old newspaper archive photo of Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova boudoir dolls found in The Doll of Choice by Movie Stars & Naughty Girls, by Linda Wulfestieg (published in Contemporary Doll Collector, March 2009).

Vanity: Thy Name Is Woman

One of the things I love most about this vintage photo of a woman (obviously showing off her stockings in an erotic “French postcard” way) is the old boudoir doll on the vanity. You don’t see a lot of photos of boudoir dolls!

The Charming Face & Feet Of An Antique Horsman Doll

This charming antique composition baby doll has a sawdust stuffed cloth body beneath the original stripped cloth outfit.

This 12 inch tall antique doll is identified by the EIH © 1911 mark on the  back of the neck.

One of the Horsman Can’t Break ‘Em character dolls, the head and face of this sweet antique baby doll was sculpted by Helen Fox Trowbridge in 1911 using her own one-year-old son, Mason Jr., as the model.

The first doll in the Horsman Gold Medal Baby series, this doll marks the first time that this mold was used.

Considering that this is a 100 year old doll, there are few condition issues.  The jointed legs are still flexible and move nicely, there’s some wear to the head.  On the right hand, a few of the fingertips are damaged. All signs that this baby was played with, but gently.  And that’s part of the charm.

What charms me the most this doll is that the sawdust-stuffed fabric covered feet show discoloration and some fraying — probably where a young child sucked the toes to comfort him or herself to sleep.  Literal sweet feet!

Matryoshka, the Russian Dolls

She never claimed to be Mother's favourite again.
She never claimed to be Mother's favourite again.

The Russian dolls (also called Russian Nesting Dolls) are called Matroschka, Matryoshka and матрёшка. As a kid I would see these Russian dolls when we went to the Canadian National Exhibition in downtown Toronto at the end of each Summer. I always wanted one. They were exotic, something from a country I heard so many different stories about. They were also so pretty, some were cute and some were so intricately painted they were things of real beauty.

I asked my Mother to buy me one. She told me to wait and see if I still wanted one next year and then I could buy one myself. This is still excellent advice for anything you want, it sure does cut down on my impulse spending when I am out shopping around. (Not that I always follow that rule, of course).

It took me a few years before I had the money to spend on a Russian doll. I couldn’t get one of those really big ones with endless dolls nested inside. But, I did get one that made me happy. She has five dolls, including the tiny baby in the middle. She is a traditional looking Russian doll cause when I took the time to look and remember the very first Russian dolls I had wanted this one seemed to be the most like the very one I had wished for all that time ago. I think she’s pretty. Of course, I have seen cuter dolls since then. But, I am happy to have the doll that I have.

Flickr groups:

Extras:

Buy a pattern for (very cute) crocheted Matryoshka dolls from Handmade Kitty’s Etsy shop.

Soleil Girl has pretty Russian nesting dolls made out of felt, with embroidered features.

The Russian Crafts site has a page up with lots of information about the history and creation of the traditional Russian Nesting Doll.